Shadow Shifter – Chapter One

Chapter 1

“I spent two weeks perfecting that spell. Now I wish I hadn’t.”

Velma didn’t respond—not so much as a meow. I glanced at her where she sat on the corner of my kitchen counter, watching the wooden spoon as it rotated around and around in the bowl by itself. I flicked my fingers and the spoon stopped. Velma looked at me, eyes accusing. Her ear twitched and I bit back a smile.

The spell had been a special request from Katherine Quinn, a cougar shifter and one of Chicago’s elite. Katherine and her family came from old money, so when she rang requesting that you cater an informal soirée for her son, Wes, and that you also infuse the dessert cupcakes with something extra special, you didn’t argue. Katherine had wanted her guests infused with love and acceptance. A tough one. Too much love, and it would tip into lust, and then you’d have people making out with random strangers. I knew because I’d tested the first batch in my shop, with disastrous results. I’d had to counteract the spell, settling instead for happiness and acceptance, and then tweak it to find the right level of both.

What I hadn’t expected was for one of Katherine’s guests to choke on a cupcake. Ted McNeil had been Wes’s best friend. He’d been wolfing down one of my creations when he turned blue in the face, clutched his throat, and keeled over. Even my magic couldn’t save him. Katherine and Wes had proceeded to call the authorities and soothe their spooked guests, keeping them calm. I couldn’t say I would have acted the same if I had been in their shoes. If someone dropped dead at my party, I’d be freaking out big time. I shrugged—just went to show I was totally out of their league.

Ruffling Velma behind the ears, I set the wooden spoon to stirring again. I needed more good luck brownies for my coffee shop, Jam, along with another two dozen confidence cookies that were now baking in the oven.

“Meow.”

“What is it, girl?”

The doorbell chimed. Velma had the uncanny ability to predict whenever someone was about to ring the damn thing. She hated interruptions as much as I did. She jumped down from the counter as I wiped my flour-covered hands on my jeans and headed for the front door. I waited until Velma had disappeared upstairs before opening it.

“Yes?” Before me towered a god. Or as near as. Over six feet of very well put-together male stood on my front step, dark hair tousled as if he’d run his fingers through it countless times, five o’clock shadow dusting his chiseled jaw. I mean, he was a cliché on legs, and I didn’t mind admitting that just the sight of him did funny things to my insides.

“Kristina Gates?” One dark brow arched over eyes as black as night.

“Who’s asking?” I leaned against the door frame, folding my arms across my chest to stop myself from reaching out and running my fingers over his pecs. And abs. He had to have rock-hard abs under that black T-shirt he wore, right?

I blinked at the badge he suddenly thrust in my face. A Watcher from the Council. Well, that was unexpected.

“Watcher Ben Hoffman. Can I have a word?”

“Sure.”

“Can I come in?”

I heaved a sigh, turning inside. “I guess.”

I heard the front door close and could feel the heat of his body as he followed close behind. I turned into the living area, sending a quick flick of magic to halt the spoon stirring in the kitchen.

“Have a seat.” I indicated the sofa while I perched on one of the mismatched armchairs. “So what does the Council want with little old me?”

“I’m investigating the death of Ted McNeil. Know him?” he asked.

“I do.” The guy who’d choked on my cupcake. I guess I should have expected some sort of investigation, but after I’d given my statement to the police yesterday, I’d been free to go, and I hadn’t expected any further questioning, let alone from a Watcher.

“But…he was human, right? Why is a Watcher investigating?” I clutched a hand to my throat. “Is it because of me? My cupcakes had magic, is that why?”

“I’ll ask the questions if you don’t mind.” His face was impassive as he pulled out his phone and flicked through the screen. He scanned the contents, then looked back at me.

“You were hired by Katherine Quinn to cater the party she held yesterday in Lincoln Park?”

“She hired me to cater the dessert buffet, yes. The savory side of things was handled by another caterer.”

“Yes, right, I have that here.” Ben scrolled through his screen again. “Jodi O’Flannigan of Flans and Things.”

I snickered. I’d always thought Jodi had chosen an atrocious name for her business, a play on her surname, but hey, to each her own.

“Why didn’t Mrs. Quinn contract Jodi to do the dessert buffet as well?”

“I don’t know. You’d have to ask her,” I lied.

Ben met my eyes, his gaze drilling into me with laser precision. I got the feeling he knew I was lying. The truth was, my desserts rocked, thanks to my touch of magic. Jodi had been trying to replicate my desserts for months with no success. And that was why Katherine had hired me—because my cupcakes were magical.

“She told me the cupcakes were a special request,” he continued, without calling me on the lie, which got my attention. Why would a Watcher let a lie slide? Interesting.

Velma padded into the room, winding herself around Ben’s legs. He absently stroked her and she purred. My mouth fell open. Velma hated strangers and most definitely didn’t allow them to stroke her, let alone offer up a purr. I frowned, examining him closely.

He noticed my scrutiny, the corner of his lip turned up in a smirk.

“Worked it out yet?” he asked.

I shook my head. Nope. He was something, all right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Not a shifter. Definitely not a vamp. But something. The Council appointed different species as Watchers, similar to the police in human terms, so it was a given that he was some sort of paranormal. I just couldn’t put my finger on what he was exactly.

“This might help.” With the slightest of hand gestures, his whole body shimmered, and I saw him. The real him. Physically, he looked the same, but now I could see his magic.

“You’re a witch! Or a wizard, or warlock, or whatever you guys call yourselves.”

“Witch is fine.”

As his words sank in, my thoughts returned to why he was here. “Why did the Council send you? While Ted’s death is tragic and I feel terrible, I don’t understand why choking warrants an investigation by a Watcher.” The Council ruled over all paranormals. If we broke any rules, we had them to answer to. If they were looking into a human death, it could only mean one thing. Trouble.

“He didn’t choke.” Ben leaned back against the sofa, his sharp gaze never leaving me.

“He didn’t?”

“He was poisoned.”

I bit my lip. “Oh, shit.”

“Exactly,” he said, nodding.

“You think I did it.”

“Not necessarily. But I need to ask you some questions.”

 My breath puffed out and I sank back into my chair, stunned. My cupcake had been poisoned. Implicating me! I bristled, on the defensive.

“I can assure you, Watcher, I did not poison my own cupcakes. I would never wish to harm another person, nor would I risk my reputation, my business.”

Ignoring my passionate outburst, Ben said, “Take me through the afternoon. Step by step.”

“Well…okay. The event was an afternoon tea type affair, due to start at four. I arrived at two to begin setting up. It actually didn’t take me that long. I was all done by three, so I chatted with some of the wait staff—I’d met some of them before on other catering jobs. Like the Corosoes’ wedding anniversary last month. That was a cracker of a night…” I trailed off, lost in the memory until he cleared his throat, bringing my attention back.

“You stay—you attend the events you cater?”

“Yes. It’s good networking for my business. Once people taste my desserts, they usually have questions, and I like to inform them firsthand. Plus, I supply my own trays and cake stands, so I can pack them up and bring them home with me when we’re done and not risk having them disappear into the back of another caterer’s truck.”

“McNeil died just after six. What were you doing between four and six, once the event started?”

“I pretty much stayed by the buffet table. It didn’t get much attention until around five, five-thirty. Most people go for the savory first, then move on to dessert, but a few people who know me skipped the savory buffet and came straight to me. I spent a few minutes chatting with them, introducing them to new cupcakes they may not have tried before. Plus, I kept the cake trays well stocked and fresh. If someone swiped their finger through the icing on a cupcake, for a sneaky taste, I’d swap it out for a fresh one, that type of thing.”

“People do that?”

“All the time.”

“And you stayed at the dessert buffet table the entire time?” he pressed.

“I went for a toilet break at about a quarter to six or thereabouts.” I shrugged. Who could remember intricate details of potty breaks?

“How long were you gone?”

“I don’t know. How long does it take to pee and wash your hands? Not long.”

“Did you know Ted McNeil?” He switched tack and it took me a second to catch up.

“In passing. He’s been in my shop a time or two, but usually, he sends his assistant in to get his coffee.” I shrugged. Ted was a big deal in the business world, but from what I’d seen, he was also a bit of a jerk.

“You haven’t catered any events for him?”

“No. I believe Jodi has a catering contract with him.”

“What magic did you infuse the cupcakes with? Specifically, the cupcakes with the blue butterfly icing.” This time he showed me his phone, the image of my blue cupcake on the screen.

“Happiness and acceptance. All of the desserts were infused with happiness and acceptance, not just the blue butterflies.”

“Why did you choose that?”

“I didn’t. Katherine requested it.”

“Do you know why?”

“You’ll have to ask her Watcher.” I shrugged. I’d thought it an unusual request, but it’s not up to me to question my clients. I simply do as they ask.

“She knows you’re a witch?”

“I would assume so, just as I know she’s a shifter. I follow the Council rules, Watcher. I don’t reveal my powers to humans.”

“Yet you use magic in your cakes.”

“I have permission from the Council, as long as I don’t use anything that takes away free will, such as love potions. I stick to things like good luck, adrenaline, confidence, inspiration, that sort of thing.” I paused. “Can I ask a question?”

“Sure.”

“What was the poison?”

“Abatwa poison.” He watched me, waited while recognition kicked in.

“We have Abatwa? In Chicago?” The Abatwa were a tiny race, so small they could hide beneath a blade of grass, but you’d be a fool to underestimate them. They were voracious eaters; a tribe of them could strip a large animal in a day. And they were very, very, sensitive about their size. Insult them, and you could find yourself on the wrong end of a poison arrow. If you were to accidentally tread on one, it would be futile to make any long term plans, because that little poison arrow would pierce the sole of your shoe, delivering the deadly toxin.

“Wait!” I held up a hand. “I’m confused. Are you telling me Abatwa poison was in my cupcake, or that Ted was shot by an Abatwa arrow?” There was a big difference. One could clear my name, while the other would implicate me big time.

“We found trace amounts in the icing of the cupcake.”

“And it was just that one cupcake?”

“We’re still testing them, but yes, it appears it was only in that one cupcake.”

I thought for a moment, my mind a jumble. Besides someone being able to get their hands on Abatwa poison, why poison Ted? Was he even the target, or had there been a mistake? Good question.

“Do you think Ted was the target, or…?”

“Most likely. For someone to go to the trouble of procuring Abatwa poison, they wouldn’t waste it on a random person. This was specific and undetectable by humans. The coroner will find nothing and most likely rule his death a heart attack—he didn’t choke and no food was found in his throat or airway. There were just remnants in his mouth.”

“So if it wasn’t some random thing and anyone could have taken that specific cake, whoever did it had to know he’d pick that one. And they probably planted the poison just beforehand, otherwise they would have risked not only someone else taking it, but me moving things around. I often rotate the cakes. The ones that have been out for a while get moved to the front and the fresh ones go to the back.”

“Are these your cupcakes?” Ben held out his phone, an image glowing on the screen. I leaned forward and squinted at the picture. Sure enough, it showed a cake stand full of cupcakes neatly arranged. Each cake featured a different-colored butterfly, creating a rainbow of pink, blue, green, purple, and yellow.

“Yeah, they look like mine.”

“It looks like a lot of work to individually decorate each cupcake like that.”

“It is. But it’s what I do, Watcher. I don’t just bake, I create.”

Ben rose, sliding the phone into the back pocket of his jeans. I stood facing him.

“So. What now?” I asked.

“I find out who did this.” He grinned, holding out a card to me. “Here’s my number. If you think of anything, call me. Oh, and don’t leave town.”

I took the card, glancing at it. “So I’m really a suspect?” The very idea set my teeth on edge.

“Everyone who attended the party is a suspect. That poison didn’t get into the cupcake on its own.”

“Right. That don’t leave town thing—that’s just a line right? A bit of a joke because that’s what they say in the TV shows?”

“No joke. Why, did you have plans to be somewhere?” He cocked his head.

“Nah. Just curious. I have no plans. I’m usually here or at my shop.”

He nodded. “Thanks for your time, Miss Gates.”

“Call me Kristina. If you’re going to be interrogating me on a regular basis, we may as well use first names. Ben.” I grinned, feeling cheeky. Thankfully, he smiled back instead of slapping me in cuffs and dragging me to the Council.

* * *

I hope you enjoyed this free chapter from Shadow Shifter, my novella in the Midnight Magic Boxed Set. Learn more here