JL Winters Mysteries

JL WINTERS

CHAPTER ONE

 

Magic isn’t something that can be explained. It must be felt. For a witch, magic is an experience, and every spell like a journey. But if you’re not careful, that journey can take you down a road there’s no coming back from. You can’t see you’re about to fall, and when you do, getting back up feels impossible. That’s where I left my magic behind.

But magic has never quite been finished with me. My power is always there, just under the surface. Even now, after a double dose of my anti-depressants, my palms grew warm and tingly. As I studied the faded, leather-bound volume resting on the worktable in my office, I could feel the book beckoning to be opened. I think the book sensed my power as much as I sensed its magic.

A book witch is naturally drawn to books, especially the magical ones, because we have the ability to open their power and tap into their magic. It’s no surprise I ended up working in the Rare Book Division at The Whitmore Museum, Los Angeles branch. I might have given up magic, but I could never give up books.

My job kept me surrounded by an endless supply of leather covers and gilded pages, while also allowing me to walk a fine line between swearing off magic and still dabbling with my powers. When life had forced me to change course, I’d thought I could just let all of the witchy stuff go, but living a life without magic hasn’t been easy.

My powers want to be used, and magical books want their secrets discovered. During my exile to the land of normal people—though I’d hardly call Los Angeles normal—I’d learned that I can’t simply turn off my magic. My power is an inherent part of me, and so my only choice is to numb it. To suppress it. To pretend it doesn’t exist. My anti-depressant meds had been a blessing in the beginning. They turned the feelings off. I thought the pills would keep me numb, but lately my powers were either growing, or I needed the doc to up my dosage.

Driving down the smog-smudged 405 freeway on my way to the museum this morning, I expected another routine day of logging the texts and manuscripts we’d acquired for the newest exhibit. Instead, I stood at the oversized worktable in the center of my basement office, staring down an ancient volume of Paradise Lost.

This was no ordinary book. I’d sensed its power immediately, even before they’d unpacked it from the box earlier this morning. I didn’t know why, but I felt a strong connection to the book. The magic felt familiar somehow. Like an old friend.

My palms tingled, wanting to touch the book, to hold it, to get a feel for its power. This is where I still dabbled with my magic. I liked to check out the rare books that passed through the museum, looking specifically for magical texts. Not all books were good, and I liked to keep tabs on the ones that weren’t. Another odd compulsion of my magical lineage. While some books have the power to build and create worlds, others have the power to destroy them. I liked to make sure the dark books didn’t fall into the wrong hands.

The distinguished, gray-haired gentleman who’d brought his newly acquired book collection to the museum this morning didn’t seem to pose much of a threat. I couldn’t say the same for his assistant. Or was she his protégé? I wasn’t sure what to call her, but it was clear she had no intention of letting me or these books out of her sight. Little Ms. Uptight hovered in the far corner of my office, all twitchy in her navy skirt suit as she clocked my every move, nervously stroking the ivory strand of pearls around her neck. I got that she understood the rarity and the value of this collection as much as I did. Or she was afraid of disappointing her boss. Either way, she’d probably have a heart attack if I touched one of the books.

“It’s your lucky day, Ms. Alexander. That’s a first edition Paradise Lost,” she informed me in a cool, brusque tone.

“It’s a very impressive collection, but the Milton is certainly the showpiece,” I agreed. “A first edition is extremely rare. I imagine the museum would love to host the collection.” I leaned in closer to inspect the carefully preserved leather cover, with elegant, gilded lettering along the spine. Along with the vibe the book was also giving off, my curiosity began to override my sense of propriety. The middle two fingers of my left hand twitched, literally wanting to make contact with the book. It was getting harder to hold the urges back lately.
            “All of Mr. Cavendish’s books are rare,” the assistant informed me, her voice taking on an even haughtier air. “It’s the reason we’re here.”

Mia Turner, as she’d been introduced to me, appeared to be a stuffy, Ivy-League know-it-all. I could spot the type. They ran rampant in the world of auction houses and museum basements, as if being able to afford collections of rare, expensive things could make up for their lack of originality. She was definitely on the payroll for Mr. Cavendish, and I wondered in what capacity. Book expert? History major? Maybe linguistics. I was slightly curious about Mia Turner and her role. Women, especially the younger variety, were also a rarity in the rare book trade. It was still very much a man’s world here.

“So, what do you do, Mia?” I wondered, dispensing with the formalities. “How did you end up working with this collection?”

She stiffened, as if she hadn’t expected she’d be asked any questions about herself. “I’m in my last year at Berkeley and I’m doing my thesis on Latin versus vernacular languages.”

“Linguistics?” I asked, raising a curious brow.

“How did you know? I’m just finishing my master’s.” She seemed to relax, or at least her shoulders did, and she came out of the corner by the computer desk and walked up to the worktable.

I definitely called that one.

“Mr. Cavendish needed help deciphering the text in some of his books and one of my professors thought it would be a good way for me to get a resume started, so he gave my name to Cavendish, and here we are.”

“Here we are.” I put on a friendly smile while taking a chance to study her more closely from across the table. She wasn’t what I’d expected. Skinny and tall, her back straight and rigid, she held on to a lot of tension, not like she was uptight, but like she was hiding a secret. “Has Mr. Cavendish been collecting for long? He has some interesting items, particularly the small press books.” My gaze drifted over the illustrations and fine bindings of the other books spread out on the worktable.

“This was his late wife’s collection. He’s finally cleaning out the house and moving to New York. He thinks the collection will be safer in the museum, at least until he gets settled in a new home and can properly store all of the books.”

The late wife had good taste. Milton, Shakespeare, Proust manuscripts, and a group of crime noir novels. The majority of books that found their way to the museum belonged to private collections and hadn’t been passed through many sets of hands. I always liked to see which books people thought were important and special enough to collect and care for, especially the rare books. Editions and printings some people only heard mention of, I actually got to see and touch. In my opinion, Rare Books Specialist was the perfect profession for a reformed book witch.

“May I?” I picked up the Paradise Lost without waiting for permission.

The essence of the book reached out to meet mine, tendrils of energy intertwining with my own. Not what I’d been prepared to find, the sheer depth of power residing in the book shocked me, and I couldn’t release it from my hands. My grip tightened around the spine, almost as if my hands and the book were melding together, becoming one. Though dark, the energy of the book felt familiar. A brutal stab of fear started my heart racing in my chest. It couldn’t be the one.

We’d destroyed it.

I practically threw the book back on the table, wanting to sever my connection with its power before it could grab ahold of me and never let go. I swiped my palms over my skirt, seeking to shed any last remnants of energy.

Frowning at me, Mia scooped the book up with tender care and inspected the binding for any damage, then righted the book on the table. “Mr. Cavendish doesn’t like the books being touched.” She straightened the other books around it until she was satisfied with the layout.

“I’m sorry, I must have lost my grip.” I had to be losing something to handle a book so carelessly. No one would trust me with their prized collection after that little faux pas, but I knew that while the title engraved on the spine of that book might be Paradise Lost, the book itself was something more.

I heard a whoosh as the glass office door slid open on its track. “Don’t get too attached, the books aren’t staying.”

Glad for a distraction, I looked up and saw my best friend, Ellison Wells, walking into the office we shared in the basement of the museum’s rare book division. Encased in walls of glass, we lived in a climate-controlled environment set to the perfect temperature and humidity to protect our rare treasures from deterioration. In layman’s terms, the office was always cold.

“How do you do that?” I marveled at my friend’s ability to be privy to information before anyone else. “Max sent you across the street for the good coffee.”

Our boss, and head curator at the museum, Max Trent, loved strong, dark coffee, and was constantly in battle with the cafeteria to deviate from the standard roast most people found palatable. The fact that he was still frequenting the coffee shop across the street suggested the head cook wasn’t going to budge, even for the boss.

“Only an idiot would have gone for coffee at a time like this.” Ellison took her white blazer from the back of her office chair and pulled it on over her black blouse. “I had to hang around his office to see what I could pick up from the meeting before getting another look at this collection. Besides, no food or drink in the book archives room.” She pointed to the sign on the wall.

It was a rule we both strictly adhered to, especially after the intern we had last summer spilled his mocha latte on some papyrus scrolls unearthed from the Dead Sea. Amateurs.

“I admit, I’ll be sad to lose this one.” Ellison fluffed the choppy layers of her shoulder-length blonde hair, then sidled up next to Mia and let her gaze roam over the book collection on the worktable. “It would have fit perfectly with the new exhibit on the Tudor period.”

The tension returned to Mia’s shoulders. “What do you mean the books aren’t staying? They have to stay.” The agitation in her voice was clear. “Mr. Cavendish is flying to New York tomorrow.”

Ellison looked across the table, giving me an arch stare. “I heard Max say we didn’t have the budget for the kind of security Cavendish wants, and then Cavendish said he wouldn’t leave the books without some kind of guarantee, one Max said he couldn’t give, and I pretty much tuned out the rest of their conversation after that.”

“The museum security is state of the art,” I said. “What is he worried about? It’s a book collection, not the Hope Diamond.” I cast a suspicious glance at the Paradise Lost. If the book held any real magical value, no regular security system would keep it safe. A person would need protective wards.

“I can’t imagine he’d take the books with him on the plane,” Mia said. “Where are they going if they don’t stay here?”

The office door slid open with another whoosh and Max walked in, dressed in a blue suit and red tie, and behind him, Mr. Cavendish wore a black suit and olive paisley tie.

“Ladies, I have good news,” Max announced with a proud puff of his chest. “Victor has agreed to leave his entire collection on loan for the next three months. That means you need to get busy with the marketing for a temporary exhibit. I really want to maximize the crowds for the summer.”

“Mia, have Randall bring in the rest of the boxes.” Victor issued the order like he was a man used to having people do his bidding.

In his sixties, he had bits of gray in his black hair, mostly around the temples, and more in his thick moustache. He gave the impression of being tall next to Max’s five and a half feet.

Mia, looking relieved, whipped out her cell phone and left the office, making her call out in the hallway.

“I hope you’ll be able to put my collection to good use,” Victor said, his eyes all over Ellison.

He’d been staring at her for most of the morning, as if he thought a man of his advanced age had any chance with a twenty-nine-year-old who was not only beautiful and wickedly smart, but fun, too. I guessed men with his kind of money were used to buying whatever—and whomever—they wanted as well.

His money wouldn’t get him far with Ellison. The Whitmore was her Aunt’s museum, and she was the sole beneficiary of her entire estate. I hadn’t anticipated picking up a trust-fund baby for a best friend at UCLA, but she was different than most. Ellison was real. She never pretended to be anything other than what she was, and I found that so refreshing in a world full of social media influencers living fake lives. Her life was the museum, and her love for the place was evident not only in the long hours she worked but in her dedication to every detail of her job, no matter how big or small. I felt damn lucky to work with her. And sharing an office with my best friend? I couldn’t ask for a better gig.

“Your collection is in good hands,” Ellison assured our latest benefactor. “I’m so thankful for the opportunity to work with such well-preserved specimens. These books and manuscripts will attract a large crowd, I’m sure of it.”

Victor smiled, seeming pleased his collection would garner so much attention. “Your enthusiasm is an inspiration, and of course, The Whitmore has an impeccable reputation. I wouldn’t trust my collection with anyone else.”

“I appreciate your support,” Ellison said.

We appreciate your support.” Max awkwardly threw an arm up and over her shoulders. Even without heels, Ellison was taller than the boss.

“I’ll be sure to tell my aunt about your generosity when I see her for tea this Sunday.” Ellison’s smile was all confidence. While Max might be the boss, Ellison would take over the role of head curator one day.

“I’d be interested in hearing her thoughts on my collection.”

“If you’d like, I could share some of my own thoughts with you.”

Victor couldn’t have looked more pleased by her offer. “How about dinner and drinks this evening? I know a wonderful restaurant close by. How does six o’clock work for you?”

“Six o’clock is perfect.” Max moved to stand in front of Ellison and held his hand out to gesture toward the door. “Shall we discuss the final details back in my office?”

I looked at Ellison to gauge her reaction at being so obviously excluded. She gave me a knowing wink.

My cell phone started vibrating in my skirt pocket and I took a quick look at the screen.

Talia.

Great. Now what?

“I have to take this,” I said to excuse myself.

“Yeah, yeah, go ahead.” Max waved me off and began leading the way to the door.

Victor followed him, then stopped to turn back to Ellison. “Aren’t you joining us?”

With a sly smile, Ellison walked out the door after Max, with Victor bringing up the rear.

Now that I had privacy, I answered Talia’s call. “What’s up, Cuz?”

“Val is losing it.” She sounded frustrated.

That made two of us today. Between the energy of the book and trying to restrain my magical urges, I was barely holding my carefully constructed façade of normalcy together.

“What did she do this time?” I wondered.

The last panicked call I’d gotten from my cousin Talia was when Val never came back from her Full Moon Sweat Lodge on the Chumash reservation, and she’d turned up at a casino in Lake Tahoe two days later. Val claimed she was a grown woman and didn’t have to answer to anyone about her whereabouts. I think Talia wanted to have her microchipped like a dog after that fiasco.

“She’s making a mess of everything,” Talia complained. “I can’t do this alone anymore. She’s getting worse.”

“Worse in what way?” I braced myself to face the inevitable. If Val’s memory was getting worse, we couldn’t put off a visit to the doctor for much longer.

“She’s completely destroyed the library.”

“No!” My heart leapt out of my chest. “She couldn’t have.”

It was my worst nightmare. My entire body went tense as an uncontrollable fear hit me, quickly morphing to an intense dread that sank deep down in my gut. When I’d left my old life behind, I’d left the magical library with it, knowing the books would be in safe hands with my aunt.

Ever since I was a little girl, my mother taught me about our family, about my powers and the powers of books. Val was her aunt, and together they kept a collection of books; some magical, some for reference, and some darker texts for safekeeping. I was deciphering ancient texts in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and even some Egyptian hieroglyphs by the time I was ten. They took me on day trips to used bookstores tucked away in small towns, or to fancy estate auctions, and even introduced me to rare book dealers. I learned how to source books and began adding my own finds to the collection, just as the women in our family had done for generations. To imagine all of those special books destroyed, that my books were destroyed, was a blow I never thought I’d have to face.

I collapsed in my desk chair and dropped my head in my hand. “What exactly do you mean by destroyed?”

“I mean it looks like a hurricane blew through here,” Talia said. “There are books everywhere.”

“But the books are alright, aren’t they?”

“I can’t guarantee all of them survived.”

“Can you just clean them up until I can get there?”

“I have no idea how to organize all this stuff. The books are your department.”

She was right. There was a special magic to the library that Talia had never been interested in learning. I sometimes think she was jealous that Val and I shared such a strong bond over the books, while she’d always been left out, especially after my mother died. In the end, Talia and I were like sisters, and if she needed my help, I had to be there.

“The timing couldn’t be worse for me right now,” I told her. “We’ve just acquired a new collection at the museum and I need to suss out one book in particular.”

“I had to close the shop, the mess is so bad, and The Sisters are getting suspicious. I can’t hold them off forever. You need to come home.”

Home. There was a word I didn’t use very often. Crystal Valley was a tiny community nestled deep in the Topanga Canyon. It basically consisted of my aunt and her friends, their various shops, and their homes. To say I was no longer welcome there would be an understatement. One didn’t go off the rails with their powers and expect a magical community to be very forgiving of the trespass. A witch who couldn’t control her powers was a danger to everyone. Leaving was the best thing I could have done, and I’d stayed gone for over five years. The only exception I made was to visit Talia every year on her birthday. I missed her terribly, but the thought of going home did not fill me with joy.

“Are you coming here, or not?” Talia asked, the desperation clear in her voice.

I couldn’t leave her to deal with this alone. A part of me had always known that just because I was finished with the past, that didn’t mean it was finished with me. “I should be there by dinner.”

“Thank you.” Talia’s sense of relief came through the phone. “I really need you, Cuz.”

“I’ll call you later.” I ended the call and tossed my cell phone on my desk next to a pile of acquisition papers and cataloguing records.

How was I going to leave my job? I knew Ellison would cover for me at the museum, and I had a ton of paid time off I could use, but that wasn’t what bothered me. It was the book. I stole another glance at it, laying on the worktable, masquerading as a harmless, old text, when I knew it was so much more than that. I didn’t want to let it go until I could get some answers about the powers it contained. This was my real job, and it had always come so naturally to me. I couldn’t walk away from everything I knew, no matter what I’d vowed. Still, it was a constant struggle having these overwhelming feelings and urges and trying to suppress them. I checked my watch.

I needed a pill.

Those helped numb everything. Those and the books. As long as I had those two things, my life as it had become was bearable.

The office door slid open and Ellison returned, taking a seat in her desk chair next to me. “Do you want to come to the dinner with me tonight? I could use the backup. Old Victor Cavendish is starting to get a little too close for comfort. He seems to think his book collection is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen, and I hate to tell him, but I’ve had better.”

“You know I would, but I can’t make it tonight.”

Ellison looked concerned. “What’s wrong? Did something happen? Who was on the phone?”

“My cousin Talia called,” I said. “I’m going home.”

“Home?” A double take from Ellison confirmed exactly what I was feeling. “As in Crystal Valley, crazy aunt, never-going-back home?”

“That’s the one.” I released a heavy sigh, not aware I’d been holding my breath for most of the morning. “Something happened with my aunt. I think we may have to get her some help.”

“I can cover you here.” Ellison jumped right in, always ready to solve a problem. “Take all the time you need.”

I managed a half-hearted smile. “Thanks.”

“If everything goes well tonight, it sounds like we’ll have a new collection when you get back.”

That’s what I was afraid of. “Promise me something?”

“Always.” Ellison held up her hand, pinky finger extended. “What?”

I hooked my pinky finger around hers for the swear we’d been doing for as long as we’d been friends. “Be careful around those books, especially the Paradise Lost.” I emphasized my words with a strong tug on her pinky.

“Who are you talking to?” Ellison pulled out of the pinky swear first. “These books are in great hands.”

“Just be careful,” I reissued the warning, wishing I could tell her more without sounding crazy.

Witches? Magic? Books of Power?

Telling her the truth would be the fastest way to lose the best friend I’d ever had, aside from Talia. I’d already lost so much to magic, I wasn’t ready to lose what little I had left.

“So, should I make Cavendish suffer tonight?” Ellison rose out of her chair. “Maybe I should wear my little red dress, the one with the spaghetti straps that makes my boobs look ginormous. I could probably get him to agree to anything.”

“Uh-uh.” I tsked at her. “You’re only supposed to use the powers for good.”

“Not tonight I’m not.” Ellison opened her bottom desk drawer and took out her purse, strapping it over her shoulder. “I want this collection for longer than three months. I’m prepared to do whatever I have to, as long as I get what I want.”

“You’re going to make a great head curator one day.”

“Let’s hope you’re right. Getting these books on indefinite loan from Victor Cavendish is my first real test, and I won’t take no for an answer.”

“Just be careful,” I warned. “You’re playing with fire.”

“I want those books.” She scooped up her set of keys from her desk. “And I always get what I want.”

The light of desire in her eyes made me nervous. Ellison had no idea what she might be getting herself into, and I had no way of stopping her or slowing her down.

“I’m sorry about your aunt,” she said. “Call me.”

And then she was out the door and on her way, headed for what kind of trouble, only time would tell.

I was headed into a world of trouble myself, and it all started with books. But I knew one thing the others didn’t.

Some books were better left closed.

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