Authors: Lauren Quick
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Horror, #Occult, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Cozy, #Supernatural, #Witches & Wizards
“When you put it that way, why murder someone in the first place? But I try not to think about the mind of murderers. I doubt they’re thinking clearly.”
“No, probably not. So who was it?” Clover touched the rough edges of the book.
Tabitha tapped the page with her finger. “You aren’t going to believe this. It was Oliver’s son, Austin. And he wasn’t the
wizard we sold belladonna to recently.” She cocked her eyebrow.
Clover’s stomach lurched. “No way. I didn’t see that coming. Austin.” No wonder he was so unhinged. Not only had his father been poisoned, but he happened to purchase the same herb that killed him. That didn’t look good. But Austin was awfully calm for someone who murdered his father. What motive could he have? She’d have to look into their relationship more closely.
“Who else?” Clover asked, bracing herself for more bad news.
“Are you sure you want to get involved in all of this?” Tabitha asked. “Maybe you should leave this up to the sheriff.”
“I don’t have a choice. Oliver Yearling was poisoned at my house, and out of a stupid mix-up, I’m currently a suspect.” Clover would love nothing more than to return home to her life of writing and puttering around her garden, but that was impossible now with the sheriff breathing down her neck, his warrant days away from being issued. She couldn’t risk waiting for Juniper to crack the case.
“You, a suspect? But why?”
“It’s a long story, but basically the murderer decided to use my party as subterfuge to poison Oliver. Whoever did this dragged me into it and now it’s personal. I’ve got to find out who had the means to poison him, how they did it at the party, and most importantly why.”
“Well, I’ll tell the police you’ve never bought belladonna or any other poisonous plants from me, so hopefully that will help. We witches need to stick together.” She squinted down at the list. “You might as well know the other wizard I sold it to was Bradley Adams.”
“What would Bradley want belladonna for?” Clover had known Bradley ever since he split from his wife a few years back, gave up his job in the city, and moved out to the Meadowlands to start his own brewing company. He worked hard and it paid off with a booming business. She had a hard time imagining why he would want poison. Her stomach seized when she remembered the empty bottle of ale next to Oliver’s body. It wouldn’t be too difficult to slip some belladonna into a bottle without anyone being the wiser. Unfortunately the handsome brewer had just become one of her suspects.
“He said it was for muscle aches. I’m not a healer. I just prepare the tonics and herbal mixtures to use as remedies or sadly in this case as a possible weapon.” Her mouth turned down, her eyes drooping at the corners. “Bradley doesn’t come in all that often and usually it’s for a salve for his hands. I thought it was a little odd he needed the poison, but I try not to pry. I knew a dumb as dirt wizard who once tried to kill vermin that way, so who knows?”
“Do you remember who the healer was who prescribed it?”
“No, you’d have to ask him. But he seemed nervous about it. Not sure why. He’s usually so mellow. Living out here in the Meadowlands really agrees with him. I’ve never seen him angry or tense. He’s a nice guy as far as I know.”
“That’s what I thought, but you never know.” Clover hated being suspicious of her neighbors, especially wizards she knew and liked. “Are there other growers of belladonna in the area?”
“Not many anymore. There’s a farm about twenty miles away that has a large poison garden, but they don’t sell to the public anymore, just to Mender Corp. You know, the big medical company in Stargazer City. But really anyone can grow belladonna if they want to. There’s no garden patrol.”
“Not the fastest murder weapon if you have to grow it yourself.” Clover was getting antsy. “Can I see it?” She’d been curious about Tabitha’s poison garden ever since she was a child and heard the whispers.
Tabitha curled up the side of her mouth. “Everyone’s curious, but few have the courage to ask. I don’t know why. Really, they’re just plants. It’s a natural defense. Snakes bite and spiders and wasps sting to protect themselves. Poison has a place in the natural order of our world. Not a safe place, but a necessary one, I suppose.” She dusted off her hands.
“I guess you’re right. But yesterday someone used it as a murder weapon.”
A willowy witch, with long golden braids trailing down the front of her overalls, poked her head out from the back room. “Yep,” she said. “Whatcha need?”
“Can you watch the shop while I take Clover on a little tour of the gardens?”
“Sure thing.” Ginger smiled at Clover. “Nice to meet you. Have fun out there.”
“Right this way,” Tabitha said and led Clover deep into the vibrant yet tangled woods behind her shop.
n elaborate herb and flower garden grew behind The Wild Rose Apothecary and was the main source of ingredients for the herbal concoctions and supplies that made up the bevy of natural cures and poultices. Every part of the plant was used from seeds, pods, roots, leaves, and petals. Clover tiptoed through a colony of mushrooms that had sprouted up in thick patches. Vibrant velvety green moss coated the trunks of trees bordering the edge of the garden. Giant stone urns spilled over with every herb imaginable. The garden was lush and fragrant, and she couldn’t help but take a deep breath. “It’s beautiful. You’ve done a great job.”
“You haven’t seen the half of it. This way,” Tabitha said. The earth witch led Clover across a wooden plank bridge that crossed a gurgling stream and down a winding, rocky path deeper into the woods. Lush foliage swept across Clover’s bare arms. A tingle of anticipation rose inside of her. As students of Haven Academy, young witches and wizards told stories and lies about the infamous Wild Rose poison garden, no one having seen it up close before.
Tabitha glanced over her shoulder. “The poison garden was my father’s pride and joy. He was obsessed with studying plants of all kinds, but the dangerous ones really stole his heart. He always said to enjoy the rose, you must know the thorn. He knew more about poisonous plants than any wizard in Everland. Most of his time was spent right here.” Her face glowed with admiration.
“He has a book in the council library, doesn’t he?” Clover asked, remembering the famous reference book often used in academy classes. “What’s it called?”
.” She cackled. “He had a wicked sense of humor. He was the leading authority before the big healing companies came along to study poisonous plants more closely. My dad was old school. He liked nothing more than to sit out here day after day, watching the plants grow and taking notes in an old parchment log. His specimen collection is the largest in Everland. It’s locked away in the council’s secure vault now.”
“But you still maintain the garden for him. That’s a huge task. He would be proud.”
“I try to do my best. Mostly in his memory. I hate to admit it, but the variety of specimens has diminished. I can only do so much and I’m not the scientist he was.”
Tabitha stopped short on the path and pulled a white birch wand from her belt. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and spun the wand in the air, whispering a low chant. The runes on her body glowed. The air shimmered, wavered, and suddenly the garden appeared.
A cloaking spell.
No wonder it had stayed a mystery for so long.
“I like to keep it hidden to ward off looters and gawkers. Last thing I need are curious witches and wizards snooping around or rummaging through the garden.” Tabitha unlatched the gate. “My father had many supporters, but he also had enemies who wanted the garden destroyed. Suspicious old hags.”
A huge black wrought-iron gate surrounded the garden that was marked out with large white stones buried in the earth. A dingy skull and crossbones was hung on the front. Using a bony white key from a chain around her neck, Tabitha unlocked the gate and let it swing wide. In contrast to her other lush wild garden, the poison garden was neat and orderly, blocked out in strict rows each marked with a stake and label identifying the species.
“Welcome to my parlor.” Tabitha motioned inside.
“Is the garden safe for the uninitiated?” Clover glanced at Tabitha’s runes. Her father had died from overexposure to poison.
“My advice is to keep your hands to yourself and don’t eat anything.” She smiled. “My father had gotten too comfortable in his surroundings, but I’m not about to make the same mistake. I’ve got a few tricks. My
with plants mixed with earth magic does the trick.”
A tall tree with black bark grew right inside of the gate. Tabitha opened a small cabinet door carved into the side of the tree, which contained an array of items stored inside.
“Hold out your hand,” Tabitha said, digging through the cabinet.
Interest piqued, Clover did as instructed.
“The best protection against poisons is a neutralizing agent.” Tabitha removed a silver feather out of a glass box and laid it on Clover’s outstretched palm. “Hold that for a second.”
Next she took out a small glass bottle filled with a deep crimson liquid. She uncorked the bottle, took the feather and dipped the sharp quill into the liquid.
“What’s that?” Clover asked, but she had her suspicions.
“Just a little blood.”
“Ew. Seriously?” Though not always harmful, blood was used most notoriously in black magic spells.
“Poisons are deadly powerful,” Tabitha said. “We need to counteract the strong natural agents with equally powerful earth magic.”
Clover agreed with her logic. “Where’d you get it?” She wrinkled her nose.
“Ghost brought me a rat as a present.” Tabitha motioned with her head.
A big, fluffy white cat had followed them into the garden. Ghost was Tabitha’s familiar. The cat sauntered up to them and Clover ran her free hand through his soft and luxurious fur that smelled like strawberry shampoo. “He did?” Clover asked, skeptically.
“He’s tougher than he looks,” Tabitha said, continuing with her work.
She pulled the bloody tip of the quill out of the blood ink and inscribed a rune mark on both of Clover’s palms. Then she cupped Clover’s hands together and whispered a spell. A spark of magical energy and glowing warmth vibrated through Clover’s hands. When she opened them, the runes glowed white. Her eyes widened in amazement.
“Cool. Can I keep the feather?”
“Sure. The spell should keep you safe from any poison for about a month, but it wears off gradually. But still no nibbling the plants.”
“No problem,” Clover said.
Tabitha gave Clover a tour of the garden. Stone pedestals with runes stood sentry around the different sections of plants. Glass globes filled with nectar hung above the plants, enticing bees and butterflies into the dark garden.
“What are those?” Clover asked. A powdery-white moth with large black spots fluttered overhead.
“A midnight moth. Beautiful, isn’t it?” Tabitha asked. “My father invented them as additional neutralizing creatures to keep a balance. He wanted to have stark and strange creatures in the garden.”
“I hope there aren’t any poisonous animals slithering about,” Clover said and watched where she was walking.
“Not scared of snakes, I hope.”
“Let’s just say I respect their personal space.” She eyed the ground around her feet. “Where’s that ferocious puffball Ghost when I need him?”
“I’m kidding. This is what you came to see.” They stopped at a row of waxy dark green plants.
“The deadly nightshade.” A shiver ran up Clover’s spine. When she reached out her hand, the white runes glowed the closer she got to the plant. “The spell has created a protective barrier. I can feel the energy vibrating.”
“The barrier you feel is the neutralizing spell. Technically, if anyone tried to poison you right now, you’d survive without a scratch or a tummy ache.”
“Wow, talk about poison
. That’s great magic. How do you harvest the belladonna?”
“I collect the plants, dry the leaves, and use a spell to make coarse crystals that I place in glass vials locked up in the black box in the back of my shop. It’s the same method my father always used.”
“How is it taken or activated for medicinal purposes?” Clover asked.
“Most dissolve the crystals in warm tea. Used in small doses belladonna can be very beneficial in a therapeutic way. Too much and it’s lights out.”
“I hate to ask, but could one of your employees have gotten into the box? Maybe taken some and sold it on the side to someone who didn’t want his or her name recorded in your book?” There was a distinct possibility this was an inside job. There had to be a black market for poison.
Tabitha grimaced. “Anything is possible. I have two full-time employees and two part-time. You met Ginger. All of them know about the poison garden and have access to the box. I trust them with all the security wards and spells to the shop and gardens. Any one of them could have taken some. Now, do I think they would? No, not in a heartbeat. We’re family.” Her shoulders tensed, her fists clenched into tight balls.
“I’m sorry to even ask.” Clover would have been furious if someone accused Derek of stealing from her.
“My full-timers have been with me from the start and that’s thirty years. One of my part- time workers has been on vacation for the past two weeks and the other one is a student who spends most of her free time at Haven Academy. She’s trying to get into the advanced magic school, so honestly I doubt she has time to plan a heist. She wouldn’t want to ruin her chances of getting into school. She’s worked too hard.”
“I’m surprised she has time to work and go to school. She sounds ambitious. I shouldn’t have pried. I’m sure the sheriff’s department will question them.” Clover brushed off her guilt for asking. Witches and wizards had strange motives for doing the things they did and selling poison under the counter for money was a big motive.
“I’m sure they will.” The two walked back to the apothecary shop. “I hope the poison didn’t come from my garden. I might have to think about a change. How could I keep the garden going knowing that someone used the plants for murder?”
“Don’t overreact just yet. Like you said, if someone wanted to get their hands on belladonna, they’d find a way. Your father’s work is important. Poisonous plants should be studied, respected.”
“I hope you’re right.”
, Clover thought.
“Would you like to stay for dinner? I made a chicken potpie earlier in the day. I just need to heat it up.”
Clover never turned down a home-cooked meal. “I would love to.”
It was dark when Clover hopped onto Marigold and headed home. This was one of those times she wished her bike was a hovercraft and she could just glide home. She tapped her wand on a crystal she’d embedded in the handlebars and whispered. “Illuminus.” The crystal burst into a glowing orb, lighting the path in front of her, giving her just enough light not to run into any unsuspecting tree. Unfortunately halfway home she hit a rock and blew out her tire.
Clover attempted a few tire inflation spells, but the burst inner tube only wheezed in reply. She’d been meaning to purchase an emergency bike kit, but always put it off, and her repair spells were woefully lacking. She attempted a few more spells to get the tire patched, but the spells were a total failure.
, she thought as she pushed the bike along the dirt road for about a mile.
The fastest way home would be to cut through the fields of Sugar Snap Farms. She considered leaving Marigold and coming back for it in the morning, but she wasn’t that far and hated to abandon her trusty bike.
A light loomed in the distance, and she used it as a guide. The closer Clover got, she realized the light was coming from the barn. Hopefully either Gwen or Grady was still working and could give her a hand. The huge white tents hovered off in the distance of the farm, glowing in the moonlight. The appearance of the tents was strange since the Winters only used them in winter to protect the crops, and it was summer and much too warm. Who knew what was under them, and currently Clover didn’t care about finding out. She made a beeline for the barn.
Her mood lightened but only for a second. As she maneuvered the bike through the grass, loud voices filtered from inside the barn. She quickly realized the occupants were in a heated argument. Gwen’s shrill voice pulled Clover closer. Wanting to make sure she was all right, of course, Clover inched closer and peered into an open window. Grady and Gwen were circling one another and words were flying. Eavesdropping wasn’t an admirable quality, but Clover had a nosy streak, which she wasn’t proud of, but it had served her imagination and storytelling well over the years. She dimmed the bike’s headlight and listened in the dark.
“I’m tired. My whole body aches. I don’t know how much more I can take. We’re losing control of the situation,” Gwen said, pacing back and forth.
“We have to be patient.”
“Patient?!” Gwen turned on him, fire in her eyes.
Typically mild-mannered, Grady kicked over a stack of bushel baskets. “There hasn’t been a murder in the Meadowlands in decades. Now there’s going to be an investigation. The sheriff’s department is all over this.”
“I’m done waiting. If we had acted sooner, we wouldn’t be in this mess. We need the land and if we don’t act now to seize it, we’ll never get it.”
“We have to wait for the will to be read and the estate finalized.” Grady fingered a silver coin that hung on a black ribbon around his neck. “We took a great risk.”
“Austin made us a promise.”
“A promise isn’t a deal. Who knows what he’ll do now?”
Clover’s stomach rolled over. She’d never seen Gwen and Grady like this before. And though she didn’t know them on a personal level, they had always been pleasant when she spoke with them at the farmers market and purchased their fruit and vegetables. Obviously they were having troubles, and Oliver’s death was in the middle of it. Currently, Clover was stuck. There was no way to casually knock and see if she could get help with her bike. Not now, anyway.