There’s only one thing sweeter than my cupcakes—his lips.
I’m just your run-of-the-mill earth witch, baking up some harmless hexes, that is until a necromancer starts messing with my town. With the dead looking for brains, suddenly I’m Mrs. Popular. Everyone wants my special charms, especially my pumpkin spice zombie-repelling cupcakes.
Everyone but Reiver, the sword-wielding stranger who saves me from an undead attack. The hunter is big, bad, and not my type. For some reason, I can’t resist the mysterious drifter in the long leather coat. Must be a spell, which I’ll break because I am not falling for him.
Despite his reservations—and mine—we team up to go after the evil infesting my hometown. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a problem with someone who thinks it’s okay to kill people to create a zombie army.
Not on this baker’s watch. Time to whip up a batch of awesome to save the world.
In a world where the witch trials never happened and magic was allowed to flourish…
The latest batch of lemon cupcakes, frosted with cream cheese icing, awaited my finishing touch. I took a deep breath as I prepared to—
We’re not talking a ladylike squeak either. I uttered a god-awful spit-and-snot-flying exhalation that practically shook the windows of my treat shop.
Big or small, didn’t matter, the spray ruined my tray of desserts. My nose tickled again. I turned away even though it was already too late. I went into a good fit that left me with my eyes streaming and my nose sore. Leaning on my forearms, gazing upon the contaminated goodies, it occurred to me that only one thing could make me lose it like that. Something banned from my shop. Heck, I’d omitted it from my life with various cleaning methods that involved bleach and some pretty epic air cleansers.READ MORE
A glance upward at my industrial ceiling with its ducts and pipes painted a lovely sky blue showed a moldy rag—not mine—with all its allergen spores, hanging over a light fixture. Confirmation of sabotage. The second time this week.
And the last.
Never mess with a witch. A lesson most bullies—and pests—learned at a young age. Even nice witches like me had their limits.
I didn’t have a chance to retaliate until later in the day near closing time. Only then did I draw a hex on the snotty cupcakes with some leftover icing. Once they all bore the same symbol, I waved my hand over the tray and muttered a few words. They glowed green for a second as the spell set. The visual evidence of my trick faded before I grabbed the tray of ruined treats and headed for the back door of my shop. It opened onto an empty alley. The previous homeless occupant, Ralph—who’d worn a sign during the day and claimed the dead would soon rule the Earth—had disappeared a few weeks ago.
I’d have worried more if I’d not seen him taken by the Second Chances van. The town—with much encouragement from residents—had taken a bold stance on getting rid of the homeless, not by killing them as a slag paper hinted at but by having them rounded up and force-fed the help they needed—even if they opposed it.
It caused a furor in a small vocal group that claimed it went against their rights; however, after three months, the evidence became too clear to ignore. No more needles in the park every morning. No dodging human waste on the sidewalks or being accosted by aggressive panhandlers for change. Not one of the beggars I’d offered food had appreciated it over cash, Ralph being the exception. Each night I used to bring him some leftover treats, and if I had none, then I made him something just to make sure he ate. Maybe now that Ralph had been taken off the streets he’d get the regular meals and care he needed to get healthier. Safer.
My hip hit the bar to release the catch on the rear door. The alley itself had only one light over my door, barely enough to illuminate. An overturned crate allowed me to climb and hold the tray over the dumpster, which was full of bags but not much of a rotting smell. The vermin inherent in every alley near a restaurant ensured no food went to waste, and that included paper wrappers that smelled yummy.
I tilted the tray and watched the morning’s work fall in a rain of lemony sweetness. It wasn’t long before tiny green paws emerged to snare the cakes. Goblins took up residence after Ralph left. Which I didn’t have a problem with. The issue started when they decided they didn’t want to wait until the end of the day to be fed. They’d also mistaken me for a pushover. I might be sweet as my peach pie, but I didn’t let anyone, or anything, take advantage of me.
As the goblins munched the cupcakes, uttering happy little grunts—the biggest one casting me sly and smug looks—I counted in my head.
Wouldn’t be long now. Goblins weren’t the only ones who could pull pranks.
It began with a belch, followed by many startled squeals, then much agitation as the mottled-skinned goblins suddenly exploded from the bags of garbage. However, there was no escape. One by one, they turned into the cutest little furballs.
Giant, jewel-like eyes blinked at me. Cuddly bodies begged for a squeeze. I just wanted to hug and squish them. I refrained and instead smirked.
“Oops. Did I accidentally hex the cupcakes to make you into the cutest version of you that you could possibly be?”
The lead furball with a slight scar amidst the fur over an eye, shook a fist at me and chattered.
I arched a brow. “Don’t you dare give me attitude. We had an arrangement. I feed you leftovers at the end of the day, and you keep my dumpster rat free. You broke the deal.”
It uttered a few clucks and high-pitched whistles.
“It’s not permanent. This time,” I warned. “But if it happens again…” They’d find out why they shouldn’t mess with a daughter of the Earth.
The rest of my day passed easily. There was a steady stream of clients for my baked goods and just as many for charms. After all, my shop wasn’t called the Hexed Cupcake for nothing.
As a witch with an affinity for Earth and all things that grew, I could hex pretty much anything that had once grown in the ground, which was to say most things, barring meat. Plants being the easiest for me.
Hence why I baked. Ingredients came from growing things. It proved easy to add a spell to the final product. Draw it in icing and then activate. Easy peasy carrot cupcake squeezy.
I offered the gamut of options to those looking for a magical kick. My green tea macarons for relaxation. Red velvet cupcakes frosted with chocolate for a quick orgasm—very popular with the sex addicts after their Thursday night meetings. My strawberry scones made a person ooze goodwill and happiness. I had many a nervous suit come in looking for that extra boost as they went to ask for a raise. The gamblers usually walked away with a PB and J cookie for good luck. Unlike some other witches with a talent for Earth magic, I only sold benign hexes, which meant no love spells and nothing to cause harm.
And before you accused me of doing bad things to the goblins, the shape change would wear off within a day and cause no lasting harm. The Becalm Hex was most often used to soothe rampaging animals, turn them from roaring beasts to cuddly pussycats. Or in this case, from green, bratty menaces to cutesy furballs. For some reason, the goblins hated this, possibly because I tickled the leader under its chin and cooed, “Who’s the most adorable squishy ever? I could just hug you and love you and call you George.”
With a squeak of terror that widened its big emerald eyes, the transformed goblin dove into the bags of trash with its crew.
That brought a smirk to my lips. They’d think twice before messing with me.
Despite the goblins’ bad behavior, at the end of the next baking day, I still bagged the leftovers for them. While many might dislike them for their mischievous pranks, I knew if I could win their loyalty, they’d protect my shop against intruders and bad vibes. A gut feeling said I’d need that help.
Something big and bad was coming. I’d seen it in the patterns left behind when I’d dropped a bowl of raspberry puree on the floor. A murder scene of fruit that almost made me cry. After all, my bushes sacrificed giving me those berries, and I’d wasted them. A tragedy that had me saying a little prayer. Dear Earth Mother, take these delicious seeds back to your bosom that they might one day flourish most bountifully.
Exiting into the alley, I grimaced at the darkness. The bulb over the door had burned out. Again. Pity our town didn’t have any Electro Witches. Better than a solar panel, I’d heard, and cheaper, too. They were in high demand, though, given they held the title for ecofriendly electrical solutions. One Electro Witch could charge several large-sized batteries a day! Even a minor one could charge a lightbulb so that it lasted for years.
I dropped the bag of leftover goodies into the dumpster to happy squeals. I didn’t peek because I could only imagine the carnage that icing would cause, especially if the spell hadn’t yet worn off from yesterday. Fur and buttercream did not mix well.
The rear entrance to my shop swung shut with a heavy thud. It took me three tries in the dark before I locked it and headed for the entrance of the alley. It ran straight through to a road running parallel. Despite the early evening hour, the streetlights shone, giving me something to guide my steps in the somber alley. The occasional car and truck whizzed by, traffic lighter at this hour than in the daytime.
I’d lucked out buying my shop, having picked it up when prices were still cheap before the area began to gentrify, or so they called it. Basically, it meant cleaning up storefronts and bringing in young professionals and the striving-to-be trendy who loved quaint shops within walking distance. Some might lament the fact that those same people pushed out those of lower social economic status. It did unfortunately happen, yet at the same time, it removed much of the crime that used to make it at times hazardous walking home at night. It left people like me conflicted because, on the one hand, I wanted to help those in poverty, but at the same time, I liked not fearing the dark.
As if to mock that thought, a figure blocked the end of the alley, and I paused. While the town had been cracking down on violence of late, it still existed. As a woman, I had to be extra careful.
I took a few steps forward, watching intently to see if they’d move, so focused I never saw the bird that swooped toward me.
“Caw,” it yelled as it passed in front of me in a rush of feathers and a stink that had me swinging my arm wildly.
Nasty crow. We’d had issues with them scavenging for scraps. Distracted, I realized I’d not only gotten close to the alley exit but the person blocking it hadn’t retreated. We were within a few paces.
I shoved a hand into my bag, my fingers seeking the Don’t-See talisman I’d bought from a stone witch, the jade infused with a hex to turn away the glance of strangers on the street. Given the figure appeared to be staring right at me I could only assume the magic in my talisman required a refill.
I tried to maintain a firm tone as I said, “Excuse me, but could you please step aside.”
The person stood statue-still. Didn’t reply either. My hand slid from my bag to dig into my coat pocket for a different kind of charm. While I chose not to do harm, I would protect myself.
I pulled out a chunk of valerian root, known for its sleeping aid properties and again asked, “Please move.”
“Ungh.” The low moan raised the hairs on the back of my neck, and yet the stench that wafted had me taking a step back.
Someone needed a bath. Possibly some bleach. And those clothes? Definitely required a flame thrower.
Passing close by to the person didn’t seem wise. I’d leave via the front of my shop to avert trouble. I spun around and headed for the rear door, only to hear the shuffle of steps as the person followed. A sign they looked to cause trouble.
I dug into my pocket with my free hand and gripped my keys. Would I have time to unlock the door? With my shaking hands, possibly not. I glanced in the direction of the other end of the alley. Farther away, but once I got close to the next road, I could yell for help. My pace increased, taking me past my shop’s rear entrance and into the darkest part of the alley, where the crow suddenly swooped again.
I flailed madly as its wings beat about my head and found myself suddenly quite concerned about it pecking at my flesh.
Crows don’t eat people. A reminder that did little to slow my racing heart.
I’d stopped walking during my mini battle with the avian offender, and a glance over my shoulder showed the other person close behind, an ominous bulky shadow that had yet to speak.
Run or stand my ground? A fight with my valerian root needed proximity. My magic usually required ingesting or touching for it to work, an unfortunate aspect, especially in a situation like this where my safety was compromised.
As the person neared, I held up my hand with my sleepy sprig. “Stop. Don’t come any closer.”
“Ungh.” A moan emerged as the figure halted less than a pace from me. While the alley might be dark, I could see a face, clean shaven, the head bearing a short stubble, the eyes wide. A stranger— No. I recognized the face despite the lack of hair and beard.
“Ralph? Is that you?” It appeared like him, and yet didn’t. Not only had he lost his wild mane and facial hair but he wore a clean two-piece scrub suit, pants a light blue and the shirt baggy. His feet were bare. His milky gaze stared blanky.
“Gaa…” He breathed the syllable, the stench of it unbelievably foul.
“What happened to you?” I whispered. He’d never looked this unhealthy while living in my alley. He needed help.
I reached for him, and his hand shot out faster than expected to grab me by the wrist. His touch icy cold–and wrong.
I shuddered and tried to pull away. “Let go.” In all the time Ralph was my neighbor he’d never laid a hand on me. Never done anything aggressive.
This Ralph didn’t appear to hear me and uttered that groan again, “Ungh.” The exhalation gagged me. Something was really wrong with Ralph.
I slapped the chunk of sleepy root to his face, boosting its innate somnolence properties with magic. A normal person would have immediately hit the ground snoring.
Instead, Ralph tried to bite my hand. I snatched it away just in time as his teeth slammed shut.
“Ung. Ung.” He grunted and clacked.
My concern mounted, and I yanked at the wrist he held. His grip remained firm.
“Let me go, Ralph. You know me. Remember? Mindy.” I tried to appeal to the gentle man inside.
A man that no longer existed.
As my panic mounted, rescue came from an unlikely source.
Tiny furballs of cuteness, and a few green-skinned, less adorable goblins, suddenly swarmed Ralph. The dumpster critters came to my aid and sank their sharp teeth into the hand and arm holding me.
Finally, a reaction. Ralph’s fingers spasmed and released but only so he could grab a goblin and bring it to his mouth.
My lips rounded in horror as he chomped.
The caught goblin squealed.
“No!” My exclamation didn’t stop Ralph from killing an unlikely rescuer. And by killing, he ate the poor furry goblin whole.
“Run!” I yelled when Ralph flailed his arm while reaching for another. The writhing wave of critters jumped, hitting the ground and bolting as fast as they could. With protection in mind, they climbed back into the dumpster. In a panic, I sprinted past the dumpster for the door to my shop, clutching my keys in a sweaty grip. I fumbled them, looking for the right one.
Jangle. Wouldn’t you know I dropped my keys.
Instinct had me dodging as Ralph reached for me. I whirled to see him, mouth slick with blood and fur. He eyed me with violent hunger. I needed to protect myself, and yet, I had no weapon. My valerian root had been my only defense.
The choice came down to fight by hand or—I glanced at the dumpster—hide.
I ducked Ralph’s next clumsy swipe and shoved at his midsection. He stumbled off balance, and I sprang upward to grab the lip of the dumpster and heaved myself up. Before I’d managed to clamber over the lip, Ralph grabbed my satchel. I twisted my head to let it fall off as I hoisted my butt over the rim of the garbage bin. I yanked the cover down and hoped the obviously unwell Ralph would go away. Or at least come to his senses.
He pounded on the side of the dumpster hard enough it dented. I knew because I felt it dimpling under my spread palms. Luckily, it didn’t occur to him to climb in with me. But at the same time, he didn’t appear to be losing interest.
I wasn’t getting out until he left. Nor could I call anyone. My phone remained in my satchel outside the bin. Dumb and nothing to do about it now except hope he left soon.
Bang. Bang. The rhythmic pounding didn’t stop and lulled me into a restless sleep.
When I woke suddenly, it took a moment to realize the pounding had stopped.
Had Ralph left?
I waited. Listened. Wondered if he stood just outside waiting for me to pop my head out so he could—
What I pictured next could be blamed on my best friend, Annie, who loved gory movies and guess who had to watch them with her?
A stirring to my left and a pair of glowing green eyes—slitted and no longer the pretty emerald-jewel version—showed a Goblin creeping from the bags. Or at least I hoped it was a Goblin. The rats in my town could be quite dangerous.
The lid of the dumpster creaked. I held my breath.
The goblin whistled as it turned its eyes in my direction.
“Is Ralph gone?” I asked.
Eyes bobbed up and down. Hopefully it meant yes.
Tense with fear, I rose and lifted the lid fully to look out upon the alley, dark still and yet lighter than the inside of the dumpster. I could see clear to the end of both sides of the alley. Ralph was gone.
Or so I thought until I swung a leg over the edge and looked down. A lump had settled on the ground.
Not a lump.
Missing its head.
The goblins squealed in joy as I puked my dinner all over the dumpster.
A witch had only two choices when confronted with a body. The first was to call the police and deal with suspicious detectives, who would automatically assume I was the reason why a body was missing its head. A few bad hags had given us good ones a bad reputation. It started when a Fire Witch turned a small town in Ontario into a literal hell hole. In her defense, it was mostly there already. Now it actually possessed a portal to the demon dimension to add to its charm.
Calling the cops would see me spending the night at the station. That would be the kindest scenario. Another would put me in a cell for a few days while a lawyer argued they had no evidence.
The other option? Deny, destroy, and pretend it never happened.
Ralph was dead. Nothing would change that. Me going to jail would serve no purpose, especially since I didn’t kill him.
Now you might wonder how little ol’ me was supposed to take care of the body of a full-grown man. If I were a butcher shop…
Ahem. I don’t do meat. Ever. I was a vegetarian, meaning, along with veggies and fruits, I only ate ethically sourced milk, cheese, and eggs. Before you ask how that’s possible, my bestie, who happened to be a farmer, sold me the goods. Her animals—raised for personal consumption and selling to select others—produced more than she could ever use, and I was happy to take the surplus off her hands. It helped my little shop thrive among the eco-minded folk in my neighborhood.
As I eyed my satchel, and the phone I could almost see inside, I debated calling Annie. She owned a farm. Plenty of places to bury a body. However, did I really want to get her involved? Didn’t seem like the thing a best friend would do. Although it should also be noted if I called, she’d show up with a shovel.
I could dig my own hole. If I were at home, my garden would help. Decaying bodies did make for good fertilizer. It was why some of the best flowers, especially asters, were found in graveyards.
How to get the body home, though? I’d walked to work. I couldn’t exactly lug it down the sidewalk all the way to my place. It might cause some people to question.
I needed to borrow a car. From whom? Annie would insist on knowing why—and offer to help.
Feeling overwhelmed, I chose to ignore Ralph for a second and entered my shop. I needed a drink of juice to replenish myself and help my brain think.
I sipped wheat grass with a hint of calming lavender as I looked around to see what I had that might help. I kept a few plants in my shop but none big enough, even combined, to rid me of a body in the next hour. Not to mention I was loathe to contaminate them if the body didn’t agree. Ralph might have been seriously ill.
I still remembered what happened to Mrs. McPherson’s rose bush. Rumor had it the ornery old lady died of a heart attack while pruning it and landed in the prickly plant. The bush took care of the body, even mulched the bones, and turned into a raging, flesh-hungry beast with dripping blood-red flowers and poisonous petals. When the Cryptid Authority torched it, it was said all the plants in a mile radius wilted. The story was a sobering reminder you are what you eat.
By the time I finished my drink, I remained without a solution to my corpse problem. Meaning, only one option left. Two, actually: Annie or the cops? I pulled out my phone and grimaced at the screen as I pushed on the door to exit into the alley.
The choice of who to call got taken out of my hands. Why bother? The body was gone.COLLAPSE