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Betting Off Dead

Book 2 in the Spies and Spells Series

And their off!
Gambling on horse racing is Kentucky’s number one sport but when a Kentucky Derby Thoroughbred picked to win the Derby, Rails and Nails, ends up poisoned, SKUL special agent Mick Jasper and rookie witch Maggie Park, who keeps her witch powers a secret, are called in to investigate a world of illegal gambling where a run for the roses can prove to be deadly.

Betting Off Dead

Book 2 in the Spies and Spells Series

Betting Off Dead

Excerpt

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Chapter One
“Oh, Miss Kitty,” Auntie Meme trilled. “You naughty, naughty owl.” Only Auntie Meme’s voice was more sarcastic than scolding.

Closely followed up by the yipping of King, Mrs. Hubbard’s Yorkie.

“Naughty nothin’!” My witchy antennae picked up the subtle increase in tension in Mrs. Hubbard’s voice. “I’m calling the ASPCA because I’m sure, well, maybe not real sure, but I’d put my plastic flower garden on the line that keeping an owl as a pet is not within the law.”

My heart stopped not only because Mrs. Hubbard meant business when she bet her plastic flower garden on anything, but also because Miss Kitty wasn’t just any ordinary owl. She was a rare species that wasn’t indigenous to the United States.

“I’ll take that bet!” A scream clawed in Auntie Meme’s throat. “Who in their right mind plants plastic flowers? You go through all the hassle of digging and planting, so you might as well plant the real deal. But then again, you’d probably kill them.”

Auntie Meme and Mrs. Hubbard were not fond of each other and that was putting it nicely.

That woman is meaner than a skillet full of rattlesnakes, Auntie Meme would say about Mrs. Hubbard. Mrs. Hubbard would say, Your aunt is crazier than a shit house rat. Whatever that meant.

“I don’t think that stealing a package from your neighbor’s front porch is within the law.” Auntie Meme’s voice held uneasiness spiced with irritation.

“I reckon I’m gonna go on in and call the law. Shooo old black bird!” Mrs. Hubbard’s voice carried into the open window of my bedroom. “Come on, King.”

King yipped and yapped. Miss Kitty, unfazed, sat on the railing of Mrs. Hubbard’s front porch.

“I dare you.” Auntie Meme’s voice slid through my veins like a cold needle. She wasn’t going to play nice anymore, not that she ever started out nice, but we didn’t need her doing something to Mrs. Hubbard. The neighbors would notice right off, since she wouldn’t be at the nightly circle when all the old women on Belgravia Court gathered to gossip.

We’d spent the better part of our lives in Old Louisville flying under the radar, trying to look like the people who lived around us. As we’d gotten older, it’d gotten harder and harder. And Auntie Meme has gotten crotchetier and crotchetier. She’s been waiting for the perfect time to throw a little bad luck Mrs. Hubbard’s way and this little confrontation just might’ve been that tipping point, especially when it came to Miss Kitty, Auntie’s owl that just so happened to be her familiar. So Mrs. Hubbard’s threat of calling the ASPCA wasn’t going along with our plan to fit in.

The Jack-and-Jill bathroom between my sister’s bedroom and mine was dark. The door to Lilith’s room on the other side of the bathroom was closed. Was she listening to the bantering going on outside our windows? Or was she really asleep? Either way, it didn’t matter, she wasn’t going to stop Auntie from exposing us. Especially now that she’s found her life’s mission. Mine, I’d yet to fully understand.

I rolled out of bed, the old wood floor creaked underneath me, which I was sure alerted the rest of the women in my family I was up. I parted the curtain and was nearly blinded by the bright early morning sunlight that would soon brighten our door an hour later due to the daylight savings time change in a week. Something my family loved. The shorter the days, the happier we were. Only because we did our best work at night.

Auntie Meme and Mrs. Hubbard were nose-to-nose. Auntie Meme’s red hair was stuck up all over her head like it always was; she was wearing her blue silk kimono, with the blue stars on it, loosely belted around her waist.

“Shoo you old black bird! Get off my flowers!” Mrs. Hubbard was fighting both Auntie Meme and the black bird that I’d seen perched on her porch a few times over the past couple of days. Both seemed to be stubborn because neither of them moved.

Mrs. Hubbard looked as if she’d just been to the hairdresser. Her short grey hair was cut into a perfect bob just below her ears and neatly parted on the left side. Her hands planted on her hips, her brows cocked up under her side bangs. Of course she had on her staples: pearl earrings, pearl necklace and black pleated slacks. The only difference in her day-to-day outfit was the color of her cardigan. Today her choice happened to be green, as in grass green which didn’t go well with the color of her skin, but that was my sister’s Lilith’s job to make her over. Not mine.

Mine was to keep the peace between us and the neighbors on Belgravia Court.

“And that hair of yours.” Mrs. Hubbard tsked.  “You know the sayin’ ‘road hard and put up wet’?”

Auntie Meme wiggled her fingers and swung her arm above her head. It was the moment she’d been waiting for. And I was about to squish that moment like a bug.

“Auntie! Whoohooo! Auntie!” I threw the window up and hung my head out. “Miss Kitty!” I yelled and the owl’s wings spread, pumping a couple of times before she lifted off Mrs. Hubbard’s front porch railing.

Miss Kitty hovered over Mrs. Hubbard for a moment too long.

“No, Miss Kitty!” I screamed but it was too late. She’d left a right nice sized present on Mrs. Hubbard’s head before she flapped her wings a couple of times and landed on my windowsill.

“Whoooo, whoooo.” Her brown eyes innocently blinked.

“You know better than that,” I scolded Miss Kitty and grabbed my robe off the chair. “Stay!” I ordered her to stay in or on the house.

I ran down the hall and shoved my arms in the sleeves of my robe as I darted down the stairs. I flung the front door open, cringing when it smacked the wall in the entrance hall, hoping against all the super witchy powers in the world that the stained glass on the heavy wooden door hadn’t broken.

There was no time to waste, Auntie Meme had both hands up in the air and if I didn’t get to her in time, Mrs. Hubbard, I’m sure, would be turned into the wartiest frog Belgravia Court had ever seen.

“No, no, no, no.” I slid up behind Auntie and yanked her arms down. I stuck mine up in the air and did a little gig around her. “Halleluiah!” I threw both my hands up in the air. “Praise the Lord on this beautiful, fine crisp fall morning.” I elbowed Auntie. “Right!”

Auntie threw me a cold, hard-pinched expression. Glances were exchanged between the two old women who were both gnawed with anxiety.

“What is wrong with your family?” Mrs. Hubbard lowered her eyes. She stumbled backward and used her hand to feel for the railing going up her stairs. She took one step backward and up. “Y’all have gone and lost your ever lovin’ minds. Both of you.” Mrs. Hubbard shook her finger at us climbing another step before she turned on the balls of her feet and scurried inside her house, slamming the door behind her.

“Maggie Park.” Her voice brimming with distaste after I spoiled the little spell she was about to unleash on Mrs. Hubbard, “You just ruined it. I need an eye of newt for the book club meeting and I almost had two eyes.” She grabbed me by my elbow and dragged me across the front yards. “I could’ve had four if I’d turned that little yapper into a newt too.”

“Oh, Auntie.” I sighed an exasperated sigh. “You’ve got to be more careful and let Mrs. Hubbard roll off your back.”

“That woman puts her nose into our business and I’m telling you as sure as I’m standing right here under the strawberry moon that she’s more dangerous to us in mortal form than she is in amphibian.” Auntie Meme clapped her hands.

“Squawk!” Miss Kitty flew down from my window on the third floor of our home and landed on Auntie’s arm.

“Maggie Park! What did I tell you about flinging the door open?” Mom hung over the second floor balcony, her long black hair was parted down the middle and fell over the railing.  The second floor porch was right off of Mom’s room and I was sure she’d seen everything that’d happened between Auntie and Mrs. Hubbard, but was taking her anger out on me.

My eyes drew up the red three-story home with the double porches on the front left side of the house. There were two large windows on each level opposite the porches. Two dark grey pillars were built on the brick wall to the open porch leading up to the large wooden door with long skinny decorative windows on each side and the same door with the stained glass that held our heritage. One glass panel was a witch hat, another a black cat, and the third a full moon.

“Good morning, Park family.” Abram Callahan came skipping up the front walk with a big smile on his face. His messy blond hair was damp as if he’d just stepped out of the shower. His green eyes sparkled under the dawn sun. “Did y’all see the strawberry moon?”

I grabbed the edges of my robe and gripped it together.

“Abram, what are you doing out and about so early?” I asked knowing that I didn’t have an appointment, nor did I care about the strawberry moon. I gave Auntie the stink eye, knowing she was up to her old shenanigans of matchmaking.

Abram Callahan and I had been friends since we were kids. He grew up on Belgravia Court.

He was a local mechanic that was really great at electronics and circuits in specialty cars. I never understood why I couldn’t just swipe my hand toward my car and fix whatever needed to be fixed, knowing that my car was one of a kind.

Auntie Meme had Miss Kitty, Mom had Riule the cat and Lilith had Gilbert, the macaw.  Me, I had Vinnie, a 1965 red AC Cobra.

“Have you seen Boomer this morning?” he asked and twisted his head side-to-side.

“You mean this little fellow?” Auntie Meme bent down and picked up the grey tabby. She deposited him in Abram’s arms.

“There you are.” As Abram ran his hand down Boomer’s back, fur flew everywhere. “He’s been slipping out at night and I’m not sure why.”

“Does he feel okay?” I bent down and looked at Boomer. His eyes weren’t as vibrant as I’d seen them.

“He’s not eating as much as he used to.” Abram’s eyes slid up to mine. It was an unspoken look between us. A look that meant he wanted me to work a little magic.

Boomer looked at me and I smiled. His little mouth turned up but only I could see. He and I had a special bond. Boomer didn’t have nine lives; he’s had triple that. Belgravia Court was next to Central Park and St. James Street was a busy street in Old Louisville that ran alongside Belgravia Court. Abram and I loved going down to Central Park to play and Boomer happened to follow us, only he played Frogger on St. James Street. Just like the game, a car squished him. He was dead.

I’ll never forget the look on Abram’s face when we heard the car that hit Boomer skid as the driver swerved the car to miss him, but it was too late and Boomer was lying on the ground. The driver and Abram were standing next to the car bawling their eyes out. I bent down and touched Boomer, springing him back to life.

Abram wasn’t stupid and he knew something weird had gone on. The whole witchy thing was supposed to be a big secret. Abram and I pinky-swore that we’d never talk about it again and we didn’t. So it was natural that when I turned sixteen and Mom had given me my familiar, a 1965 AC Cobra named Vinnie, Abram became my familiar’s sole mechanic.

Mom and Auntie loved Abram. He was loyal to the family. Never asked questions. And certainly didn’t question the odd equipment under Vinnie’s hood.

“You will come in for biscuits and gravy,” Mom appeared at the front door. She ran her hand over the stained glass, her gesture letting me know that she still wasn’t happy with me flinging the door open. If she only knew it had been for our family’s own good, she might’ve been a little more understanding.

“You know I will.” Abram put Boomer back on the ground and jetted up our front steps, following Auntie inside.

“What’s wrong?” I bent down and patted Boomer. He let out a few meows. Nothing a little touch couldn’t fix. “You are fine.”

He scurried down the courtyard after I ran my hand down him. He stopped in the middle and looked back at me before he ran off toward their house.

Belgravia Court was still asleep, except for Mrs. Hubbard. It was an odd place to live.

The houses were so close together, I couldn’t spit out my side bedroom window without hitting the neighbor’s house.

Belgravia Court was a close-knit community with everyone in everyone else’s business. Our little slice of heaven was peacefully tucked away from most of the noises of the city. All the Victorian homes were built back in the 1890’s and faced each other across a green courtyard that ran three blocks.  At night, gas lights provide the illumination taking one back into another time. It was what Mom was going for when she moved us here. The old, familiar feel of yesteryears.

Not just us. Given our heritage and all, we tried to keep a low profile. Thanks to Auntie and her on-going feud with Mrs. Hubbard, that was a hard thing to do.

“You sit right here.” Auntie patted the open seat next to Abram when I walked into the kitchen. I cocked a brow. Mom slid me a sideways glance; a slight smile curled the edges of her lips.

I eased down onto the chair and tucked the hem of the robe under my legs.

“Maggie, I hope you are hungry. You have a big morning.” Mom’s eyes drew down on me; it was like looking in the mirror because we had the same almond-shaped black eyes and oval face. Our hair was the same, long and black and she could pass as my sister. The only difference was her high cheekbones, like Lilith’s, compared to my round ones that made me look younger than I really was.

My eyes narrowed wondering idly what Mom was talking about. My life was pretty much the same every day. Go to work at our family diner, The Brew, take orders, and deliver the food. I wasn’t much of a cook and although I tried, I could burn water. Auntie was the cook and I couldn’t say that she was so much of a great cook that kept our diner hopping as much as she’s a great witch with wonderful taste-bud spells. Lilith had worked there until she recently took over a local makeup company called Mystic Couture. She spent most of her days at the office working with Tessa, the owner, leaving me to do all the duties at The Brew, which was probably what Mom was talking about.

“This sure does look good.” Abram looked around the table and took his helping of biscuits, scooping spoons full of gravy and interrupting the odd silence between the Park women. He hovered over his plate and dug right on in with his fork.

Auntie and Mom disappeared from the room leaving me and Abram alone.

“Hey.” He leaned over. He wiggled his fingers in the air. “Can you do that oggly-boogly on Boomer again like you did when we were kids?”

A terrifying realization rushed over me. As much as I had hoped that Abram had forgotten what I’d done, he hadn’t.

“You pinky swore.” My mood veered sharply to anger. “You pinky swore,” I said again.

“Oh.” He shrugged and went back to stuffing his face with the gravy soaked biscuits. His mouth full, he said in a muffled voice, “Well, it didn’t hurt to ask. And you are super testy. Plus, I pinky swore before you told me all about your involvement with SKUL and Mick Jasper.”

My heart did a flip-flop before it skipped a beat and nearly stopped.

A few months ago I’d gotten into a little pickle with a little known division of Interpol called SKUL, Secret Keepers of the Universal Laws. You could say I was at the wrong place at the wrong time or sticking my witchy nose where it didn’t belong; either way, Auntie Meme had sent Abram my way when I’d gone to look for Mick Jasper, the spy for SKUL who I had started to inadvertently help after SKUL had decided I would make a good informant for them due to my everyday, all-American-girl look. Little did they know I was a witch. Regardless, I had confided in Abram about my role and how Mick Jasper played into it, keeping the truth about my involvement with Mick from my family.

“Listen,” I put my hand over his mouth. I whispered knowing Auntie and Mom were probably in the hall listening because I could guarantee this was not a chance meeting this early in the morning because I’d never seen Abram up at the break of dawn, “We have to talk about this later.”

“Later?” Mom walked in. “You two are meeting up later?” Her voice escalated as she drummed her fingertips together.

“Dinner sounds perfect.” Auntie Meme swept into the room. “And I’ll even let Maggie leave work early so she can get ready for your date.”

“Wait.” I jumped up. “We didn’t say anything about a date.”

“Date.” Abram shrugged and smiled. “That sounds about perfect.” He scooted his chair back and stood up. “I’ll see you tonight, little lady.”

“No, no, you won’t and I’m not little lady.” I followed on his heels down the hallway, my body rigid, my fists tensed.

“I’ll be here around three, early supper.” He turned at the door and looked at me. Satisfaction pursed his lips.

I slammed the door. A thunderbolt jagged through me.

“This is working out splendidly,” Mom’s voice trilled from the kitchen. “With that Mick out of the way, we will have you married off in no time.”

“Married off?” My footsteps thundered down the hall as I stalked back to the kitchen. “There will be no wedding to Abram Callahan.”

I had completely ignored the Mick comment.

“Maggie,” Mom drew near me and curled her arm around my shoulder. “Auntie and I were talking and we just don’t think you are cut from the same cloth as we are. We know.” She twirled her wrist around. “We know you had your Witchy Hour, but it proved to be a little off kilter since you haven’t really found your life’s journey.”

“Cut from the same cloth?” A laugh raked my insides.

Hearing the words Mick and Witchy Hour in the same sentence startled my insides. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t thought about Mick Jasper over the past couple of months, of course I did, but as the weeks had gone by and I’d yet to hear from him, so had my thoughts. I’d kept myself busy at The Brew, especially now since my sister Lilith was no longer working there. Auntie Meme had yet to hire anyone new in fear of them figuring out that no matter what kind of mood the customer was in when they walked through the door, they left the diner with a full belly and a happy soul, all due to Auntie’s special spelled ingredients she meticulously served in her food.

“Mick Jasper? Witchy Hour.” I shook my head.

Yes. I’d had my Witchy Hour while I was working undercover for SKUL, which by the way wasn’t by choice. Mick Jasper was a sneaky little handsome devil. He’d looked into our family diner and our lives when I’d refused to help him after I’d gotten myself entangled in his investigation. Of course there were no records of us. We were a family of witches.

My mom had moved us to Old Louisville. By day Lilith and I went to regular school and by night Mom and Auntie Meme held witch school for us. We’d blended in just like everyone else. Auntie Meme’s life’s journey was to cook and create, so it was natural for her to whip her wrist and turn an old building in downtown Louisville into a diner. Mom was more on the Mother Nature side of the life’s journey so she grew all the special ingredients Auntie Meme needed along with keeping our yard looking beautiful. Then there was Lilith. Her life’s journey had ended up being in the natural beauty field and using products that didn’t hurt the skin or the earth so her job at Mystic Couture was perfect.

Then there was me. I had my Witchy Hour as soon as I started my little adventure with SKUL. Mick Jasper hadn’t found any paid taxes or even the sale of the building to our family, so he held it over my head until I agreed to work with SKUL. I wasn’t sure if working for SKUL was my life’s journey so I’d kept it to myself and pretended that Mick was my boyfriend and that was why I was spending so much time with him.

Mom and Auntie’s witchy senses went to hell in a hand basket and they did everything they could to split us up. That’s where Abram fit in and I was sure where this marriage thing was coming from.

“I haven’t seen Mick in months. And my life’s journey has obviously been put on hold since I have to work Lilith’s shift at the diner.” It sounded reasonable enough, though we all knew the Witchy Hour, the hour where my mortal world and witch world had collided—which just so happened to be when I met Mick—had already reared its head and alerted us to the fact I’d found my journey.

Mom’s dark watchful eyes missed nothing. She stared at me as I rambled. I felt like a cat in a bag.

“Ha!” I had to come up with some dazzling leap of logic. I moved past them and down the hall. “Me and Abram? Ridiculous. I’m not even attracted to him.” I wagged my finger in the air behind me and jogged up the two flights of steps to my room.

Mick Jasper. I rubbed my finger and thumb together. I could almost feel the spark we’d shared when I touched him.

“Mick Jasper,” I whispered and lifted my finger to my lips to try to stop saying his name, but it was music to my ears. “Mick Jasper.”

 

 

Chapter Two
The crisp fall morning breeze gently blew the curtains into my bedroom and whooshed down, snapping me out of my thoughts. Something told me that it wasn’t going to be long until I saw Mick Jasper again.

With a swipe of my hand and a cute outfit later, I’d grabbed my clutch off the counter, the bottles of ingredients Mom had left in a bag for me to take to the diner for Auntie’s daily specials and headed out into the early morning dew.

“Good morning, Maggie.” Vinnie, my red 1965 AC Cobra car-slash-familiar greeted me when I got into the car. “You are awfully dressed up for serving coffee and biscuits.”

“You are very observant.” I buckled my seat belt and tapped on Vinnie’s dash to make all his circuits light up. It wasn’t that I needed to type in where I was going this morning, it was the same every morning, but it kept my hands busy and it kept Vinnie from really trying to read my body language. Mick was on my mind. “I thought that a cute sweater would be a nice change.”

Fall weather in Kentucky is akin to Mother Nature with PMS. She didn’t know whether it should be hot, cold, rainy or snowy.  On any given fall day she’d change the weather through all the seasons and cackle while we tried to dress for her. I had chosen, by the swipe of my witchy hand, a turtleneck brown form-fitting sweater to go with a pair of my skinny jeans and tall brown boots. Normally I’d wear the regular black pants, black shirt and comfortable shoes, but today my gut told me to wear something different.

As much as I wanted to believe it wasn’t about a certain hunky spy, I knew differently.

“This isn’t going to be a good day.” Vinnie jerked forward, speeding off down the alley, making a quick right on Sixth Street without stopping to check oncoming traffic.

“Vinnie!” I scolded him and reached out to flip on the manual switch after a barrage of honking cars and skidding tires echoed from behind us. “Are you having a bad morning?”

“Don’t flip my switch. You’ve already done enough damage this morning.” Vinnie slowed to the regular speed limit before he took a left on Hill Street.

“What on Earth are you talking about?” I adjusted myself in the seat and held on to the wheel.

“There is a foul odor under my hood and the last time I felt this angry in my pistons. . .” Vinnie’s voice trailed off as soon as he pulled up to the curb on Fourth Street, right in front of The Brew. “It was because of that Mick Jasper.”

“Mick Jasper?” I laughed before there was a tap on the passenger’s side window and I nearly jumped right out of the cute outfit. “Mick Jasper.”

I blinked. I blinked again, this time a little harder. He stood there gazing into my private space. I gulped. It’d been a few months since I looked into those blue eyes and totally forgotten the effect they really did have on me.

Mick Jasper.

“What are you doing here?” I met his flinty gaze head-on when I got out of the car and used the fake key fob to make Vinnie beep like I was locking him. I gripped the bag of ingredients and my clutch.

Vinnie didn’t take too kindly to it, so he set his alarm off.

“Turn off the alarm.” Mick looked over my shoulder at Vinnie’s flashing lights blinking on and off before Vinnie decided to pop his hood up and down for dramatic effect. “I swear you need a new mechanic.”

“What can I say?” I shrugged and ran around to the front pushing the hood closed with a very firm palm smack, giving Vinnie the you-better-knock-it-off sign. “It’s an—”

Mick interrupted, “Old car. You’ve said that several times when strange things happen.”

“I probably do need to keep it in the shop for days.” Mysteriously the honking horn alarm and flashing lights went off.

“Just like that.” Mick gestured to the car. “You say something like you are going to take it to the shop and it stops like it hears you.”

“Huh.” I tilted my head, duck billed my lips and furrowed my brows as if he were on to something. I was pretty good at pretending to be a mortal around him. Scary had it’d been natural. “So,” I rocked back on my boot heels. “We don’t open for another half hour.”

As much as I tried to ignore her, Auntie Meme was in the front window of The Brew flailing her arms above her head trying to get my attention. I knew she needed me to get the dining room ready for the customers and Mick was taking that time.

“I’m not here for the biscuits and gravy or the feel good mood that I seem to get when I’m here.” He stepped back and narrowed his eyes. “Burt sent me here. He said that he needs to see you.”

“Oh.” I rubbed my hands together. “Another case?” I elbowed him. “Partner.”

“First off, I don’t know what he wants because I’m already on a case. Secondly, we aren’t partners. I’m just the messenger.” He looked up and down Fourth Street. “Be at SKUL headquarters at three o’clock this afternoon.”

“Aye-aye.” I clicked my boot heels together.

“And remember that you can’t breathe a word of this to anyone. Including your Auntie Meme who is desperately trying to get your attention behind me.” Mick Jasper was very observant which made him a good spy. “So you better come up with something better than I’m your boyfriend because I won’t be around.”

I stood there and happily watched him walk down the street and get into the maroon beat-up Caprice he drove. It was by far and away a better way to wake up my lazy body than a cup of coffee.

“We’ll see about that.” My brows rose in obvious pleasure and I blew a stream of wind in his direction before he sped off.

If I was going to have to do some work for SKUL, it was going to be with Mick. I was going to make sure of that, whether he wanted to or not.

Bang, bang, bang. Auntie Meme pounded on the window with a flat palm. I ran inside.

“Your mama isn’t going to be none too happy.” Auntie Meme rosy red cheeks deepened. Her black eyes impaled me. She stuck her fingers in her flaming red hair and fluffed it even higher.

“Why? Because Mick Jasper came to see me and asked me out.” A big snake-like grin grew on my face. Liar, liar I thought to myself knowing it would send Auntie Meme into a tizzy.

“I’m just your great auntie, I don’t know anything.” She shrugged.

“But a wonderful great auntie who likes to make sure her great niece is super happy and isn’t stuck with Abram Callahan when she’d much rather be talking to Mick Jasper.” It was my way of asking her to keep my little meeting with Mick a secret. “Besides,” I lifted my hand in the air. “There’s nothing to tell. He only wants to talk to me this afternoon.”

I twirled my wrist to the right and then Auntie Meme grabbed it, flinging it down to my side. She grabbed the bag of ingredients from my other hand.

“No magic.” Her eyes were alight like a fire, somewhat like an arsonist’s. “I told you no magic. Fill the condiments yourself.”

“What good is being a witch if we can’t use our magic?” I walked past her and grabbed the condiment caddie from underneath the counter. “Seriously, with the swipe of my hand.”

“You and I both know that there are people everywhere that could be walking by and happen to see you do the tiniest bit of magic and then we’d be exposed.” She sauntered back to the kitchen and disappeared into the kitchen where she did her life’s journey. “You can never use magic in the real world, Maggie. Even when you figure out your life’s journey.”

I walked around the retro diner, going from table to table filling up the sugar, salt, and pepper shakers. I placed a napkin in front of each chair along with a fork, spoon, knife and a frosted plastic cup. Each table had their own retro design and they all had the metal stripping around the edges with metal chairs with the plastic-sparkly chair seats. The black-and-white tile floor finished The Brew’s retro diner look Auntie Meme was going for.

“So,” I nagged at Auntie Meme to get the heat off of me. “What on Earth were you fighting with Mrs. Hubbard about so early this morning?”

Auntie popped her head through the window between the kitchen and the dining room. Her cheeks were sprinkled with flour and her hair looked as if she’d dusted underneath a couch, which was out of her character since most of her cooking was done with magic. I eyed her suspiciously.

“That old bat.” Auntie Meme’s hand flew up in the air, a spark of lightning shot out, exploding into a tiny firework with a bat popping out of it. I ducked when it flew over my head. I ran toward the door and pushed it open just in time for the creature to fly out.

“I guess you are mad,” I snorted. “What on Earth did she do?”

“I had a hankerin’ something was wrong when I didn’t receive my package I ordered. I should fuss at my ownself because I knew I should’ve ordered it from a coven instead of that big online retailer everyone squawks about, especially since the neighborhood gossip circle wonders why we never get packages in the mail or the mailman never stops.” She tsked.

We didn’t receive mail or even know what it was about. In fact, we didn’t even have a mailbox, but for all the gossip circle of Belgravia Court knew we might’ve had a P.O. Box, even though we didn’t.

“Anyways, I need a special vase for the spell circle. It was guaranteed to do the trick and there was only one left on that online retailer. I did the mortal thing and ordered, anxiously awaiting the delivery man to deliver it around the four o’clock afternoon time so when those henny-hens were gathered and clucking away, they’d see us getting a package.” Auntie Meme’s eyes hooded like a hawk. “I was too late getting home yesterday to get my package. There was this note on the door.” She pulled a yellow slip of paper from her apron and held it through the pass-through window.

I walked over and took it from her. The slip said they’d delivered the package to the neighbor.

“You know I don’t like to socialize much, so I went door-to-door on Belgravia Court asking if any of them had my package. Not a single one said yes or admitted to it. But I got me a clue.”

When she said clue a pain struck my heart with a sick and fiery gnaw that told me Auntie Meme was not good at sleuthing and this was a disaster waiting to happen.

“Shay Hannagan down at 212 Belgravia Court,” Auntie spouted off Mrs. Hannagan’s address, “told me that she saw the one and only Gladys Hubbard scurrying across Belgravia Court from our house to hers. Not just a little walk, she was practically running with a package under her arm around the same time I was supposed to get a delivery.”

“I’m sure you went over and asked her nicely if she’d received the package and maybe was bringing it to our house and when no one answered she took it back home?” It seemed like a pretty logical explanation to me, but logical and Auntie Meme were not a combination.

“I might could’ve.” Auntie Meme lifted her chin, her lids drew down to cover her eyes as she looked down to the right.

“Let me guess,” I paused for effect. “You didn’t.”

“You’re darn tootin’ right I didn’t,” she spat through gritted teeth. “I got me one of them eyewitness accounts about her thieving my package.”

“You heard it from Shay Hannagan, who I recall also started the rumor that Abram and I were going to get married.” A rumor I desperately wanted to forget about. A rumor that sent Mom and Auntie Meme to the store to get me all sorts of bridal catalogs when I was twenty-one.

“He was carrying you.” Auntie Meme brought back the memory of how I’d let Lilith take me to The Derby, our local neighborhood bar, for my twenty-first birthday. Needless to say, I couldn’t make it home on my own two feet and Abram had to carry me.

“I was drunk.” My voice carried a unique force. “Besides, I was just making a point.” I had to put that memory in the back of my head.

Everyone on Belgravia Court thought there was going to be this big old wedding right there in the middle of the court. Abram’s mom had already made a guest list. Mom has always been so sure that my Witchy Hour had to do with marrying a mortal. One like Abram wouldn’t be so bad since he never questioned me, until today, and he’s kept his mouth shut about Vinnie. A keeper in Mom’s and Auntie Meme’s eyes.

One problem. I wasn’t attracted to Abram Callahan and never would be. I let out a happy sigh when images of Mick popped in my head.

“Oh no.” Auntie shook her head and disappeared back into the kitchen. “I know that look when I see it. Mortal or witch,” she hollered over her shoulder. “You are smitten, young lady!”

“I am not in love with Abram Callahan!” I put the condiment container back under the counter and ran my finger down the three coffee pots. Instantly they filled with freshly brewed coffee. I dusted my hands and smiled.

“I wasn’t talking about Abram.” A puff of flour rolled out of the pass-through. “I’m talking about Mick.” Her words sent a shock to my heart. “I’m gonna have to call the Spell Circle.”

 

Chapter Three
It didn’t do me any good to wear a cute outfit to work. I hustled and cleared so many tables, I ended up spilling everyone’s leftovers on me. Auntie Meme was off her game and we’d actually had a few complaints, which had never happened in the history of The Brew. And the lunch crowd stayed unusually longer than normal. It was so out of character that I had a sneaky suspicion Auntie Meme had done a little spell of her own to keep the crowds there so I would be late meeting Mick.

She’d already threatened to call in her Spell Circle, her group of witchy friends that met once a month to do protection spells and concoct all sorts of new spells. Some worked, some didn’t. Either way, I enjoyed watching them and found myself somewhat jealous that I didn’t have friends like that.

Still, I was almost certain Auntie had planned the lunch crowd to take longer than usual.

“Good afternoon, Maggie.” Vinnie had been waiting outside of the diner when I’d gotten off work.

“Good afternoon,” I put on my seatbelt and paused, wondering if I should flip Vinnie’s manual switch because he wasn’t going to be happy that I was going to see Mick. “Vinnie, I’m going to SKUL headquarters.”

“I don’t find that sentence a bit musing, Maggie.” Vinnie’s distaste for SKUL and all things related started back on that fateful night I’d played Truth or Spell with Lilith while we were having a drink at The Derby after work one day.

I lost the dare so I had to put a cat spell on the man of Lilith’s choice. That man just so happened to be Mick Jasper. Only. . .I put the spell on the wrong man. Mick had seen it all and when I cast the mind-erasing spell on him, it didn’t work. In fact none of my spells worked on Mick and that’s when my Witchy Hour came. And that’s how I knew my life’s journey was based around Mick and SKUL.

A life’s journey I’d questioned up until this morning when Mick showed up on the sidewalk in front of The Brew. It’d been a couple of months since I’d heard from him and I figured it had been an anomaly and the Witchy Hour had it wrong. But maybe not.

“I wasn’t trying to amuse you, Vinnie.” I mimicked his static voice. “I’m serious. You can either drive me to SKUL headquarters or I can flip on the manual.”

Vinnie roared his engine and I held on figuring him to be so mad that he was going to take off. Boy was I wrong. His tires rolled at a snail’s pace just to piss me off. Just to piss him off, I pulled the visor down and took my Mystic Couture lipstick out of my clutch and applied it very slowly over my lips.

“Mick really loved this color last time I wore it.” My lips made the suction sound as I patted them together to matte the gloss. “And my hair.” I shook my head side-to-side as it magically styled into long loose curls down my back. “Perfect. Oh.” I lifted my hand in the air. “Just a quick wardrobe change.” I circled my hand in the air and settled into the tightest pair of leather slacks and deep v-neck sweater.

“I do not think so.” Vinnie quipped. “You do not go out looking like that or I’ll have to send a message to your mom. Plus, you have to wear the necklace.” The red stone pendant I had hooked on the gearshift glowed.

“I’ll make you a deal.” It was time to get down to business. “You are my familiar. Technically, you have to do what I tell you to do. I understand you are here to keep me safe. But I also believe that you are keeping me from figuring out my life’s journey.”

“What’s this deal you are talking about?” Vinnie never liked it when I reminded him that it was me who was in charge, not him, as he liked to think.

“I’ll keep on being the same old, same dressing Maggie Park and not decide to take the bus or even have Mick pick me up if I need to, if you continue to keep me safe and do what I say, like drive me to SKUL like a normal car.” It was plain and simple. “Do the job you were meant to do, not because you are jealous of Mick Jasper.” I stuck my finger in the air and explained, “Who by the way has no interest in me the way you think.”

“I think I know how to make an emotional read out.” Vinnie’s screen lit up with lights. They did a wave before the lights made a graph. “As you can see, this was Mick’s emotional chart from the night you tried and failed, I might add, to make him a cat” his voice snide, “to his emotional chart during the last investigation you assisted SKUL in, all the way to this morning when he saw you in front of The Brew.”

There was an obvious climb when we first met, a lull over the past couple of months, and a spike this morning.

“You just had to bring up the failed part didn’t you?” I asked and snapped my fingers to change my outfit into a pair of khaki skinny pants tapered at the ankles, a black turtleneck fitted sweater and a pair of black sensible flats. I kept my hair the same because I kind of liked the loose curls.

“Because he makes you lose your marbles when you’re around him which causes your witch sense to be off and you fail.” Vinnie gave it to me straight, only he was wrong.

“Wrong! I was off because when two worlds collide, the Witchy Hour, the spells don’t work. So somehow Mick Jasper has something to do with my life’s journey.” I pointed to the street ahead of me, happy to feel Vinnie pick up speed.

As Vinnie drove like a normal car, my mind raced after seeing images of the emotional chart on Vinnie’s circuit. Mick had specifically mentioned that he was sent to the diner by Burt Devlin, the director of SKUL, not by himself. Mick didn’t mention anything about me working with him again. Which made me think that my life’s journey was to continue to help SKUL, which was what I’d thought a couple of months ago but then didn’t hear from them. That seemed odd. Because in your life’s journey, you were supposed to do that job for the rest of your life, every day, like Mom, Auntie Meme and Lilith. Not just intermittently.

I would find out soon enough because before I knew it, Vinnie had pulled into the SKUL headquarters parking lot and turned off. The building wasn’t marked as SKUL, it was undercover as a dentist’s office and I just couldn’t wait to get inside to talk to the evil receptionist.

“Oh no, not you again?” The receptionist eased back in her chair.

“So you haven’t missed me?” I questioned in a joking manner and tapped the red pendant hanging down from the necklace to make sure I was connected to Vinnie. I had to keep my promise.

“Listen,” she retorted, “I don’t know what you do to me every time you come in here. All I know is that I feel funny afterward.”

“That’s maybe your feeling of bad karma, since you can’t seem to let me in when I’m here, even though you know that Burt has given me clearance,” I said.

That was difficult. When Burt had asked me to help them on the last investigation, SKUL had to do all sorts of background checks on not only me, but also my family. That proved a little difficult because we were witches living in the mortal world. We looked and acted as if we had the normal background, but covens didn’t keep public records like the mortals, which made me pull a few more spells on the SKUL database, giving me a spotless past.

“Burt?” Sarcasm dripped from her mouth. “You are calling him Burt?”

Ahem, someone cleared his voice behind me.

“Sir!” The receptionist stood up and put her hand over her brow. “I’m sorry if you heard any of that conversation. Ms. Parks is here to see you.”

He raised a brow toward the receptionist before he turned to face me. I threw my hand up to my brow to follow suit and give him the same respect. Sherry was next to him.

Blondie, how I ever-so-affectionately referred to her when she wasn’t around. I grimaced. She was the last person I wanted to see after the day I’d already had.

“No need to salute me, Maggie.” Burt was an older man with silver hair. He was obviously ex-military because I sensed it as well as his hairstyle gave it away. “You are a civilian who is doing some wonderful work for your country.” His smile was warm and welcoming. He put his hand out for Sherry to step up. “You remember Sherry.”

“All too well,” I muttered under my breath before I put a big ole smile on my face and remembered what Mom always told me, you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar. “It’s so great to see you.”

“Mmm, hmmm,” she hummed, never parting those pouty lips of hers. She eased the palm of her hand on the butt of her gun that was sticking out of her holster attached to her belt. There was a SKUL badge hooked on the other side. She had on her normal SKUL outfit of blue dress pants and tucked in white button-up shirt. “Burt, can I talk to you?” She nodded her head to the corner of the receptionist’s lobby, leaving me standing in front of the receptionist with dead air between us.

I tuned in with my witchy ears and looked around the room as if I wasn’t listening in.

“I mean no disrespect sir, but her?” Sherry looked over at me with a critical eye. “She’s not equipped to go in on an investigation of that magnitude.”

“She will be fine. I need a lay person who will fit in and she’ll be great.” Burt looked over at me and grinned.

I returned the gesture. The pendant alerted me to tune into my witchy senses as it warmed against my turtleneck and onto my skin.

“Sir, she has no knowledge of the field. She works in a diner for God’s sake,” her voice was thick was sarcasm.

“All the better to blend in. The less she knows, the better off we are. Just an insider is all we need.” Burt put his hands together. “I really appreciate your point of view since this was technically your case, but I’m going with my gut on this one.”

“Whatever,” she murmured.

“Excuse me?” Burt asked and drew back giving her a stern look.

“Of course you are right, sir.” She sucked in a deep breath and let out a long heavy sigh.

“Patsy, Ms. Parks will be needing a badge to enter and exit the office as needed.” He instructed the receptionist.

She eagerly nodded her head at him and shifted her glare to me once he was at the door which led to the guts of SKUL.

“Why, thank you, Patsy. That’s awful kind of you to get my SKUL badge ready.” I winked and waved before I headed over to Burt and Sherry who were waiting for me.

I looked back at Patsy with a little sad feeling tugging in my gut that I wasn’t able to give her another spell. I had a good one too. Oh well, maybe later.

I followed behind Burt and Sherry down the dentist’s hallway. Even though it was a cover, it was a great cover office. It even smelled of fluoride and cement used for molds. We stopped at another door and when Burt opened it, it was the secret elevator that took you down into the depths of where the real SKUL was—their offices along with all of the spy stuff that I found really cool.

Burt was a true southern gentleman. He held the door while Sherry walked in first and I walked in after her. The elevator opened up into a large room with a flurry of people walking by all with the same sort of outfit as Sherry: either blue or black trouser pants, a gun and a badge along with a tucked in button down. All expect for Mick Jasper.

He was standing at the end of the long hallway we were walking down past the cubicles on each side. Every employee stood up and saluted Burt as we walked past.

Mick’s eyes were focused on Burt and had instantly saluted him when Burt walked up.

Mick’s eyes slid to mine and they caught for a minute, sending a tremor through me. He might not be my life’s journey, but he sure did give me a shakeup. He had on a pair of Levi’s that snugged in all the right places, a pair of cowboy boots, and a red plaid shirt that was striking against his tan skin and black hair. All my insides electrified when I stood near him.

“Maggie, good to see you,” the rich timbre of his voice sounded like a sweet howl at the moon as it passed through my ears. An irresistibly devastating grin crossed his lips. No matter how much I tried not to smile, my lips quivered from me trying to pull down the all-out smile on my face.

“Mick, can we see you in Burt’s office alone?” Blondie stepped in between us. My eyes zeroed in on her hand resting on his chest.

He had a cowboy hat in his hand and he stuck it on his head. “Why, yes ma’am, you may.” He was cute playing the part of a cowboy.

Mmmm, mmmmm, I thought a little magic could easily rope him in.

“Giddy up,” I whispered as I watched him, really his backside, walk through Burt’s office door. I took a seat outside the door and pretended to look at my nails as I tuned in with my witchy ears.

“Can you talk Burt into his senses?” Sherry was obviously talking about Burt’s judgment to have me on this new case. “He said that he’s going to replace me with her.”

“On the Churchill Downs case?” Mick’s sweet cowboy voice had suddenly turned to business. I stood up next to the chair in front of the wall of glass.

I turned around and looked at them gathered around Burt’s chair at his desk where he had sat down. He dragged a file off the stack and opened it. I ran my hand across my necklace so I could feel to see if my intuition was right and this had to do with my life’s journey. The heat beneath my fingertips told me I was right.

“Yes.” Sherry’s arms flailed up and then down to her side. “Can you believe that? She has no knowledge of horse racing or anything horse related. She could go in there and blow up the entire investigation that I’ve been working on for months.”

“Sir, I’m going to have to agree with Sherry on this one. I mean, we got lucky with Ms. Parks the first time around. She was a little sloppy, but got better, but she clearly didn’t follow protocol and her judgment was more on the side of whatever felt good to her at the moment.”

“She did her job and who knew she could fly a helicopter.” Burt shuffled through a file that I could see had my name on it. He looked up at me and waved. I waved back. “She doesn’t have to know horses and all that. She simply needs to play the part that Sherry was going to play, only no agent techniques.”

“You mean there are no other agents that are qualified out there?” Mick put his hands on the desk and leaned in.

“All the women are being used on other cases. Besides Mick. She’s right up your alley. Twenty-eight, thin, kind, and very pretty.” Burt shut the file and pushed it to the side.

“I’m so glad you think I’m so shallow.” Mick let out a heavy sigh.

“This is ridiculous.” Sherry wasn’t about to let me take the case without a fight.

“I’m afraid you are going to have to work with Ms. Parks again.” Burt waved me in before the two could protest further.

He stood up and walked between Mick and Sherry. Mick looked at me but Sherry kept her eyes trained on the floor.

“Ms. Parks, are you ready for another fun investigation using your everyday sense of skills?” Burt asked.

“Well, sir,” I clasped my hands in front of me. “It depends on what the assignment is.”

I acted as if I really cared, I didn’t. All I knew was that I was going to be doing something with cowboy Mick and it thrilled me to death.

“We are asking you to play Mick’s wife in an undercover investigation we have going on over at Churchill Downs.” The word wife gonged in my head. I gulped and tried to wipe any and all expression off my face.

Sherry wasn’t so good at doing that. She looked as mad as a mule chewing bumblebees.

“There have been some reports of insider doping among the wealthiest of owners and trainers,” Burt said.

“Doping horses?” My jaw dropped. I’d never heard a like. Who on earth would hurt a beautiful horse? Now I was more interested in the horses then Mick.

“Yes,” Mick took a step forward. “As you know as a native Kentuckian yourself,” he looked at me as if I was hiding something. Which I was. My heritage, my witchy heritage. I was not born in Kentucky. I was born in the coven and Mom moved us to Kentucky when I was a small girl. “Horse racing is big business around here. Especially with the Kentucky Derby in our backyard. It seems that there are no limits to what these wealthy horse owners will do to secure their spot in the Derby.”

“You mean by killing off the competition?” I asked, dumbfounded.

The more of the mortal world I was becoming engrained in, the more I didn’t like it. My double shift at The Brew was looking pretty good.

“Sherry was Mick’s partner, but after a few checks on some of the people we are investigating, we found that Sherry had gone to high school with one of them and we just couldn’t take the chance of her being recognized,” Burt said.

“That’s where you come in.” Mick smiled, but it wasn’t one of the smiles that knotted my stomach. It was a fake smile that alerted me that the snide spy was back. “We need you to play my wife so I can get in there and do some looking around. Maybe you can get us into the circle by befriending the wealthy wives.”

“It would help if you had knowledge of horses.” Sherry’s nose snarled along with one corner of her lip.

“We need you to start tomorrow morning.” Burt grabbed a file off of his desk and held it out to me.

“Oh, sir, I’d love to but I can’t do that. Now that Lilith, that’s my sister, got her Wit. . .”  I corrected myself, “Um. . .new job and so I’ve been working two shifts. Hers and mine until Auntie Meme hires a new employee.”

“Auntie Meme?” Burt questioned.

“Oh yes, sir. She’s the patriarch of our family, sir. And no one, not even SKUL is a match for Auntie Meme.” I shrugged.

Sherry rolled her eyes and chirped a chuckle.

“It’s true, sir.” Mick finally came to my defense. “I’ve met and seen Auntie Meme in action.”

Burt looked between us before he paced back and forth as we all stood in silence waiting for his reply.

He rubbed his chin. He looked up to the ceiling. He tapped his temple and spoke, “Sherry can work your shift. She’s worked undercover in diners many times. She’s an old pro.”

“Oh, I don’t think so, sir.” Sherry stepped up to the plate to give her best bat at getting out of this. “I have plenty of paperwork to catch up on and I’m just. . .”

Burt put his hand up to stop her from talking.

“Sherry will take over your shift first thing in the morning,” Burt’s voice was stern and non-wavering.

I swear Sherry looked as if she was going to throw a big hissy fit right there. I even prayed for it. I’d given anything to see her cry, in hopes she had one of those ugly cry faces. It would’ve been the best way to make my day, other than playing Mick Jasper’s wife! My insides jumped with glee.

“Well.” One thing popped up in my head when my pendant warmed my chest. “I’m not sure how well Auntie Meme will take this news and all. She doesn’t know Sherry and I just can’t leave my family high and dry.”

“That’s easy. Mick had mentioned that your family eats supper every night at 5 o’clock on the dot.” He pointed to Sherry. “Sherry will be your guest and you can introduce her then.”

“But, sir,” Sherry protested. I swear the water works were on the way. I bit my lip in anticipation. Somehow she recovered and fast. She shrugged her shoulders back and her body was straight as a line drawn with a ruler. “I’ll be over at your house at five.”

“That does it then.” Burt handed me the file. “Here are the particulars you need to know on the case. We look forward to working again with you, Ms. Parks.”

He ushered me out of the office, but kept Mick and Sherry in there. I took the elevator up to the undercover dental office.

“Here you go,” Patsy’s hand flung toward me when I walked back into the lobby, my new badge in her grip.

“Thank you, Patsy. I’m looking forward to seeing your smiling face every day.” I flicked my finger at her as if I was flinging off a booger.

Instantly her mouth widened into the widest smile you’d ever seen. It sort of reminded me of the Joker from the Batman movies. It was an instant smile spell that would happen to her every time she saw me.

“Goodbye.” Patsy’s lips tried to jerk down. Her teeth gritted, her jaw tensed, her brows formed a V as she used her hand to try to pull the now slightly deranged smile down.

I walked out of the office with the file tucked in my arms.

“Well?” Vinnie asked when I got inside my familiar and he drove out of the parking lot.

“What can you tell me about Churchill Downs, horse doping, and pretending to be a wife?” I put the file down on the seat.

I nearly went head first through the windshield as Vinnie skidded to a stop.

end of excerpt

Betting Off Dead

is available in the following formats:

Aug 29, 2016

ISBN-13: 978-1536896596

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