A Spell of Murder
Witch Cats of Cambridge Book 1
by Clea Simon
Genre: Cozy Mystery
Becca, newly single and newly unemployed, wants to believe she has psychic powers. With nothing but time – and a desire for empowerment – she’s studying to become a witch. What she doesn’t know is that her three cats – Harriet, Laurel, and Clara – are the ones with the real power. And when Harriet – “a cream-colored longhair with more fur than commonsense” – conjures a pillow for her own comfort, Becca believes her spells are finally working. Could that be why Trent, the coven’s devilishly handsome leader, has been showing her special attention? Or why Suzanne, a longtime coven member, draws her aside to share a secret – a confidence that may lead to murder?
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It was Harriet’s fault. It’s always her fault, not that she’ll ever admit it.
That was Clara’s first thought as she tried to settle on the sofa, flicking her long, grey tail with annoyance. As a cat, Clara wouldn’t usually have any trouble getting comfortable. That’s one special skill that all felines share. But even as she tried to calm her restive tail, curling it neatly around her snowy front paws, Clara, a petite, if plump, calico, couldn’t stop fretting.
Harriet was her oldest sister, a creamsicle-colored longhair with more fur than common sense. Still, despite the fluffy feline’s typical self-absorption, she and Clara and their middle sister, Laurel, had cohabited with a nice enough human for almost two years without any problems, until now. Until Harriet.
Yes, Becca, their human, had begun to believe she had psychic powers. Becca, who at twenty-six usually had more sense, was training to be a witch, as if that were something one could learn from books. But to the calico cat who now fumed quietly on the sofa, the petite brunette had always seemed a harmless soul—good with a can opener. Warm. Generous with her lap. And then, last week, Harriet—who cared only for her own comfort—conjured up a pillow.
“I was tired,” Harriet said, in that petulant mew that Clara knew so well, when asked why in the name of Bast she’d be so stupid. “Becca wasn’t even looking.”
“You could have moved!” her younger sibling hissed back, the grey whorls on her sides heaving with annoyance. “And she was!”
Harriet was taking up the sunny spot on the windowsill, as she always did that time of the morning, and Clara narrowed her mysterious green eyes to glare at her sister. Harriet was more than fluffy, she was immense, a pale orange marshmallow of a feline, whose furry bulk and predictable habits prevented her youngest sister from enjoying any of the solar bounty. Still, she probably shouldn’t have hissed. Harriet was Clara’s elder, if merely by a few minutes. As it was, the orange and white cat just shuffled a bit and turned her rounded back on her sister rather than responding.
Clara didn’t know why she even bothered asking. She already knew the answer: Harriet didn’t move unless she had to, and on a warm spring day it was easier to conjure a cushion than make the leap from the sun-warmed sill to the sofa, where Clara now fumed. The sofa where, it turned out, Becca had been trying out a summoning spell. And so now, of course, their hapless human believed she had pulled that pillow out of the ether.
Which was a problem because Becca belonged to a coven. Had for about three months, ever since she saw a flier in the laundromat advertising an opening for “Witches: New and In Training.” That was the kind of thing that happened here, in Cambridge, where the hippies never really went away. Since then, they’d met every week to drink a foul-smelling herbal concoction and try out various spells. None of which ever produced any magic, of course. None of the humans had the basic powers of a day-old kitten, and certainly nothing like Clara and her sisters shared as the descendants of an old and royal feline line. But now, Clara feared, Becca had become obsessed, spending every waking moment trying to reproduce that one spell, while Harriet, Laurel, and Clara looked on.
“Don’t you dare…” Clara muttered in a soft mew as Laurel sashayed into the room, taking in her two sisters with one sweeping gaze. Laurel was the middle one, a troublemaker and as vain as can be. Not simply of her own glossy coat—the cream touched with brown, or, as she called it, café au lait—but of her powers. That she was plotting something, Clara was certain. As Laurel glanced from Harriet back to Clara again, her tail started lashing and her ears stuck out sideways like an owl’s.
“Why not?” Laurel had a streak of Siamese in her. It made her chatty, as well as giving her neat dark chocolate booties. “It’ll be fun.”
“It’ll bring more people!” Clara felt her fur start to rise. The idea of her middle sister meddling—and possibly adding more magic to the mix—made her frantic. “Don’t you get it? They’ll never let up.”
The black, grey, and orange cat—the smallest of the three sisters—didn’t have to explain who “they” were. That night, Becca’s coven would be meeting again at their place, which, to the three felines, was bad enough. Strangers, six of them, would soon be sitting in all the good seats, with their odd smells and loud voices. What was worse was that Becca would think she had to feed them, as well as brew that horrible tea. And as the cats well knew, Becca had no money, not since she lost her job as a researcher for the local historical society.
“Redundant,” her boss had told her. “What with the budget cutbacks and the advances in technology.”
“That means they can get an intern to do a Google search.” Becca had sniffled into Clara’s parti-colored fur the day she’d gotten the news. Harriet might be the fluffiest and Laurel the sleekest, but Clara was the one Becca talked to. The one she had confided in months earlier when she found the book that had started her on this whole witchcraft obsession, a spark of excitement lighting up her face. She’d been researching land deeds, the scutwork of history, when she had stumbled on it, her eye caught by a familiar name—some old relative of hers who had been caught up in a witch trial back in the bad old days in Salem. Then, when she’d seen the flier by the coin machine at the Wash ‘N Dry, she’d been so exhilarated, she’d raced back to tell Clara, leaving her sheets in the drier. And now, without the distraction of her job, Becca had thrown herself into the study of magic and sorcery, spending her days in the library or on her computer, trying to track down the full story of that great-great whatever, and sharing her fears and, increasingly, her hopes with Clara.
Maybe it was because Clara was a calico that Becca whispered into the black-tipped ears of her littlest cat. Calicos had a reputation for being more intelligent and curious than other felines. Plus, that uneven look—a gray patch over one eye and an orange one over the other—made her appear approachable. Inquisitive. Becca couldn’t know that her youngest cat was often teased for her markings. “Goofy,” her sister Laurel said in her distinctive yowl. “Clara the calico? Clara the clown!” Recently, Harriet had taken up calling her that too.
Clara didn’t mind, as long as Becca kept confiding in her. The young woman didn’t really think her cats understood about her being laid off, but, in truth, they were all quite aware of the straitened circumstances. Not that Laurel and Harriet always sympathized. There was that one time three weeks ago that Becca tried cutting back on the cats’ food, getting the generic cans from the market instead of the tiny ones with the pretty labels. After wolfing down hers, Harriet had barfed all over the sofa. She didn’t have to. She was just making a point about what she considered an affront to her dignity.
Tonight, when Becca took credit for conjuring that cushion, Clara didn’t know what her haughty sister would do. Interrupt, most likely. Jump onto the table and begin bathing, if she had to, to be the center of attention. If she tried anything further—like pulling more pillows out of the ether—or if Laurel got up to her own tricks, Clara would have to get involved, she vowed with a final flick of the tail. And that, she knew, just wouldn’t end well.
The recipient of multiple honors, including the Cat Writers Associations Presidents Award, she lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, with her husband, Jon Garelick, and their cat, Musetta.
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That’s the question I am asking as I work on the second book in my “Witch Cats of Cambridge” series. It’s key to the series, and to the first book, A Spell of Murder, because our cats can’t talk to us – not directly. But as pet lovers, certainly we all imagine what they would say. What they would comment on, and what they want.
There are some basics that are easy – and easy to dismiss. Our pets, perhaps cats especially, would want to be fed. They’d want treats, and they’d want to know when these meals and the extras will arrive and to be sure they’ll be delivered on time. That’s certainly a basic motivation, and one that I ascribe to Harriet, the oldest of three sister cats who live with my human protagonist Becca in A Spell of Murder.
It also fits with what a lot of people say about cats: that cats are very self-centered and all they care about is their food. The whole “your cat would eat you if she could” thing. However, aren’t we all appetitive? Indeed, I would counter that these animals are simply more honest about their desires than we humans. Unlike us, they don’t deceive themselves about what they need or want.
Perhaps your cat would ask or, really, demand that you pet her – or not pet her. That you avoid messing up the fur that she’s spent hours grooming. Or, perhaps, she’d advise us on how we could look or feel better. Again, that fits with another stereotype – that cats are standoffish or vain – a projection probably occasioned by their sinuous beauty, as well as their care for their coats, feet, and faces.
In reality, of course, this is a matter of survival – of being warm and able to hunt, protected from the elements and easy detection by larger predators. But, yes, it can seem like an over involvement with appearance. That preoccupation is one I ascribe to Laurel, the second cat cohabiting with Becca. And because she is rather obsessed by Becca’s love life, as well, she fulfills another cat archetype, if not stereotype – that of cat as fertility symbol, so sexy and sleek.
Or would your cat worry about you? Do they, as I often feel Thisbe and Musetta before her did, see us as inept, oversized kittens, barely able to function in the real world? Perhaps because of my real-life experience, loving cats like this, this is the role I give to Clara, the calico, who is the youngest of the three cats in Becca’s life and the real heroine of the series. Like her sisters’ preoccupations, Clara’s worries are based in part on her own desire for a well-ordered household. She wants routine and to know that life is proceeding in an orderly manner. But if she is looking for calm and stability, well, ultimately, isn’t that what we all want?
Maybe our relationship with our cats – what we hear, what we want to hear – is all based on projection, our own hopes and fears and dreams. But is that a bad thing? I would argue no, and that a positive view of our pets is something to be encouraged. After all, that projection offers us another way to see ourselves, as well as our beloved pets, which are – as Wallace Stevens said of poets, “Part of nature, part of us.”
That’s why, I believe, that if our cats could talk – if they could tell us what they want – we’d hear what I hope my readers hear in the pages of A Spell of Murder and, ideally, its sequel. That our cats want us to be at peace and they want us to be happy. And if that is selfish of them, well, it’s a kind of selfish I think we can all relate to.
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