Autumn brings a new music festival to Gordarosa, Colorado, and Caitlin Ross’s band is playing! Hoping to get through the event with a minimum of arguing over set lists and placement, Caitlin soon discovers more trials await her than the usual hassles of the music business. On the first night, she stumbles across the body of one of the festival’s promoters. What seems a natural death at first glance proves murder when Caitlin detects the residue of magic around the corpse. With no authority to believe her, it falls to Caitlin, the only witch in town, to trace the spell to its source and bring the perpetrator to justice.
The task appears straightforward, but murder is only the festival’s first calamity, and it’s not alone in having magical origins. A fairy amulet has unleashed the forces of chaos, and the resulting fights and riots put a hitch in Caitlin’s investigation. When she discovers the amulet belonged to the original victim, she suspects she’s found the motive for the crime. If she can find the amulet first, she can set a trap to reveal the murderer. To do so, however, she must wield a power unlike anything she’s ever dreamt of. The cost is her sanity, and possibly her life.
“Please explain to me again why I am doing this.”
My husband, Timber MacDuff, jerked the steering wheel of our Chevy truck around to avoid colliding with a compact car hastily backing out of a handicapped space in front of Gordarosa’s Main Street Theater.
“Feckin’ idiots.” Accident prevented, at least for the moment, he relaxed back into his bucket seat, left hand resting almost negligently on the wheel. His right hand reached out and squeezed my thigh.
“Because you told Bill you would months ago, aye?” he said in the soft Scottish lilt that nearly thirty years in America hadn’t managed to erase. “Come now. It won’t be so bad.”
“I suppose.” I glanced across the cab at him, but his eyes were on the street, scanning it for a parking place. He wouldn’t find one. At seven thirty on this last Wednesday evening in September, the three-block downtown strip was packed with cars, all carrying people to the opening event of the First Annual Gordarosa Fall Festival.
“I didn’t mind when it was just Bill,” I went on, as if we hadn’t had this conversation a dozen times or more in the last month. “A performers’ showcase was a good idea.”
“And it still is.” Timber turned the truck up Church Street, hoping to find a space off the main drag.
“It’s just been blown out of proportion. An arts festival at this time of year…I’m not sure the town can support it.” Gordarosa’s population of fifteen hundred did include more than its fair share of musicians, poets, potters and other artists, as well as a great many alternatively-minded people. But the bulk of the citizens were ranchers and coal miners, farmers and small business owners. I couldn’t convince myself they’d be all that interested, especially not when half the festival took place on weeknights.
It had started innocently enough. Bill Jamison, the bandleader for local rock group Right as Rain, also owned and acted as chief engineer for the Gordarosa Valley Recording Studio, which he ran out of the basement of the house he shared with his partner, Eva Destruction, Right as Rain’s bassist. Most of the local musicians went to Bill’s studio to record their CDs. So Bill had come up with the bright idea of putting together a sampler CD featuring all those local artists and staging a concert where folks could come see them all in one place at one time. I’d agreed to participate because my Celtic band, Red Branch, had been one of the groups to record a CD at GVRS, and it had seemed like good exposure. I hadn’t reckoned with it becoming a huge deal.
“Breda thinks it can.” Timber’s black leather pants squeaked as he shifted his weight and spun the wheel again, taking the truck up to Orchard, still in search of a parking space.
“Breda’s lived here two months. She has no idea what this town can support.” My best friend, Breda Ni Fhearraigh, late of New York City, had recently been hired as the manager of the Gordarosa Arts Center. Approached for her business acumen, she’d taken Bill’s original idea and run with it, transforming a one-night performers’ showcase into a four-day festival complete with a poetry reading, artists’ studio tours, a pub crawl and a fair in River Trail Park on the north side of town.
My husband grunted in satisfaction at finally finding a place to park as he pulled the truck into the Methodist Church lot, a quarter of a mile from downtown and almost empty. Lucky for us the Methodists didn’t hold Wednesday night services, as some denominations did. “We’re here. Grab your gig bag, love. We’ve a bit of a walk, and we’re on in less than an hour.”
“We should have just walked from home.” I got out of the truck, twisting my ankle in the process, and cursed under my breath. “I had no idea it would be so crowded down here.”
“Thus proving your fears about the viability of a festival groundless.”
I glared at him. Timber leaned on the hood of the truck and grinned back in his lazy way, a stray lock of his wavy, dark hair falling in one twilight blue eye. Six-foot-four and built to match, the sight of him, as always, sent a thrill through me. I had much better things to do with my Wednesday night than play a twenty-minute gig for which I was not being paid.
“At least we’ve got a forty-minute set on Saturday night,” I grumbled, grabbing the satchel containing my flute and whistles out of the back of the truck. We weren’t being paid for Saturday night, either, but the gig would keep the rest of the band happy. As I reached for my gig bag, my waist-length hair fell over my shoulders, getting in my way. I pushed it back impatiently, caught the gig bag on the edge of the truck bed as I tried to haul it out, and dropped it on my toe.
“Do you need help with that?” Timber had already claimed his own gig bag and slung the case containing his bodhrán over his shoulder, and started out of the parking lot.
“No. I need to cut off my hair.” Auburn and as straight as if it had been ironed, I couldn’t do anything with it but let it hang or braid it back. I’d chosen the former for tonight, and it was annoying me.
“Och, don’t do that. Maybe Breda will fix it for you if there’s time.”
I sniffed. Breda usually dealt with my hair before gigs; she was the only person who could make the mass of it perform to any standard. But Breda had already been downtown at the theater setting up for tonight’s show when it was time for me to get ready. Besides, I was so irked with her over the whole festival thing that we were barely speaking.
“Come on. Let’s go.” I caught up with my husband in a few steps, but my ankle twisted again on the rough pavement and I stumbled. My brown, high-heeled boots had not been made for walking.
“You should have worn different shoes.” Timber caught me about the waist with his free hand, steadying me. He kissed me on the neck, his beard scratchy on my skin, and his fingers trailed over the bodice of my green lace dress. I slapped them away.
“None of that. I would have worn different shoes if I’d known half Colorado would be here and we’d have to walk a mile to the venue. What’s Steve going to do with them all? The theater only seats a couple hundred, if that.”
Timber just shrugged and let me go. Clearly he did not consider the theater owner’s tribulations any of his concern.
“Why so cranky?” he asked as we started toward Main Street in the gathering twilight. “Is it just the gig?”
I paced beside him for half a block in silence before answering with a sigh.
“I don’t like festivals. There’s always too much crazy energy, with the crowds and the noise. It really gets to me. And Frank and Lisa are always on their worst behavior.” Frank Delacourt and Lisa Bristol comprised the other half of Red Branch, as guitarist and fiddle player, respectively. “I hate having to ride herd on them and make sure they get the job done instead of swanning about lapping up adulation they don’t really deserve. Honestly, Timber, these days I don’t know why I ever thought I liked being a musician in the first place.”
“You love being a musician. You hate being a bandleader.”
“Wise man. I should listen to you more often.”
“Aye, you should.”
We joined a herd of bodies all hastening down First Street to Main and the concert. I stumbled and nearly fell again as someone jostled me; Timber took my arm and steered me aside.
“Looks as if the press release did its work,” he commented.
Breda had advertised the Gordarosa Fall Festival in every paper from Aspen to Moab, hoping to draw a more moneyed crowd than our little town could provide. What was more, she had enlisted Vic Houston, a bluegrass artist on the Honey Ridge label, who had retired to Gordarosa a year ago, to contact his friends in the music industry on the festival’s behalf. He promised promoters and label reps, both at the performers’ showcase to which we were headed and at the big concert Saturday. This had gone a long way to mollifying tempers of musicians who were going to a lot of effort without being paid. Canny, my friend Breda. Pity she hadn’t been able to do anything to solve my problems.
Reaching the alley that led to the theater’s back entrance, Timber and I peeled off the crowd and started down the rutted gravel. I spared a glance for the empty lot on the corner or First and Main, surrounded by chain link fence, where the Emerald Isle pub had stood until the past July. The rubble of the bar had been cleared from the site, finally. Most of it had been used to fill the gaping hole that had once been a demon’s prison—once been, because I had freed the demon myself last summer to prevent its being controlled by a black magician. The street lights cast a harsh, bluish-green glow over ground not entirely smooth. Breda, who owned the lot because her late father had owned the pub, was always saying she was going to turn the lot into a memorial park and garden, but she hadn’t got around to it yet.
Breda and Timber were the two of the three people in town who knew I was a witch, Breda because that black magician last summer had tried to sacrifice her to gain the demon’s allegiance, and I had prevented it by slapping him in the face with magic; Timber because he was my husband and a shaman as well. I trusted both of them with my secret. I wasn’t sure I trusted the third person in the know, the demon himself. I’d thought when I had released him that he’d leave the area, but instead, he’d taken up residence. Consequently, since last July, I had become a reluctant magical guardian for the town of Gordarosa, and spent much of my time making sure nothing untoward went on there, due to the presence of the demon or anything else. So far, nothing had.
Midway down the block, the back door to the aptly named Main Street Theater stood open to the mild September night, spilling soft gold into the alley. Timber and I hastened through it into the dressing room, a cavernous space of cinder block walls that had once enclosed a tractor garage. It was crammed with musicians and their gear; the performers’ showcase featured a dozen bands. Not all the members of all the groups were present, but enough that the air hung heavy with Patchouli oil and perspiration. The atmosphere hummed with anticipation.
I forced my way between two members of the bluegrass band, Mama’s Choice, who were sharing a suspicious pipe on the back step, and plunged deeper in, looking for a place to stow my gig bag until our turn came. Spotting what seemed to be a free area in a corner, I made for it, only to find it occupied by a small, porcelain saucer and a matching bowl. The bowl sported a rim of white inside, indicating that it had recently held milk or cream. I frowned at it.
“Steve’s keeping a cat?” I asked Timber as he came up behind me.
He gave his eloquent shrug again. “If he is, it’s hiding now, aye? Over here.”
He guided me through the crowd to the other side of the room, where a familiar guitar case stood propped against a wall. In its shadow lay an equally familiar fiddle case. Sighing, I plunked my gig bag down with the things belonging to Red Branch’s other, less talented half. Timber set his own gig bag, crammed with a dumbek and various other percussive noisemakers, next to mine and laid his bodhrán case on top. Then we both straightened up and glanced around for the rest of our band.
I found them soon enough, more by sound than sight. Frank’s nasal voice rose above the others of those clustered by the refreshments table where, beer in hand, Frank held forth on the merits of various types of guitar strings to a dark haired young woman in a white dress—Sylvie, a high school senior with a stunning voice. Her eyes glazed as she looked at him; I thought she was searching for an opportunity to get away. Lisa’s braying laugh erupted from the group gathered around a T.V. in one corner. The T.V. displayed a closed-circuit video of the action on stage—a necessity, since no one in the dressing room could possibly have any idea how the show was proceeding without it.
A sigh of relief left my lips at seeing both band members present and accounted for; they had been known to wander off at inconvenient times. Both were attired appropriately, as well: Lisa in a sleeveless blue velvet mini dress and Frank in black slacks and a tuxedo shirt. Good. Presenting a professional appearance at a gig seemed so obvious to me that I rarely gave it a second thought. With Frank and Lisa, I could never be sure. Most of the time they got it right. But I had never forgotten the time Lisa had showed up to play a wedding wearing tattered old jeans and a sweater covered in dog hair, and I’d had to send her home to change.
Sylvie disengaged herself from Frank and disappeared into the crowd. Frank grabbed another beer from the refreshments table and headed for the back door. At a jerk of my head, Timber took off to keep track of him. I gave a mental hike to my skirts and went to join Lisa.
“Who’s up?” I asked as I squeezed into the gang watching the show on the T.V.
“Andrew Rose,” Julian, the drummer from Right as Rain, informed me. “He’s singing about his sagebrush.”
“Gawd, he’s awful!” Lisa bellowed.
A frosty silence fell. I glanced around and noticed the expressions on the faces around me had become rather fixed. I grimaced. Lisa had it right; Andrew Rose, a singer-songwriter with pretensions of spirituality, was awful. But in the close-knit musician’s community of Gordarosa, that kind of thing went better unsaid.
My eyes strayed to the clock over the back exit and then to the order of performance posted on the stage door.
“Right.” I touched Lisa; she jerked away from me as if burned. “Mama’s Choice is next and then it’s us. I’m going up front, but I should be back in fifteen minutes or so.”
She nodded, her eyes glued to the screen. I did not tell her to stay put. She would only have uttered some scathing comment designed to keep me in my place. Besides, she didn’t look likely to go anywhere.
I returned to my gig bag, collected a stack of CDs and left through the back door, giving a cursory nod to Timber and Frank as I passed. I didn’t hear what they were talking about, but I noticed that now Timber’s eyes looked glazed. Rounding the corner of the theater, I took the shortcut through the narrow park between it and the Oddfellows’ building. The park, usually empty at night except for the odd group of bored teenagers, was full of people taking a break from the entertainment, having a smoke, getting a breath of air, or standing around in groups, chatting.
When at last I broke through into Main Street, I found it even more crowded than the park. In the block in front of the theater, people milled around like cattle. Half of them didn’t have a hope of getting inside and didn’t seem to care. Some seemed to be coming, others to be going. Some just stood around hoping to see and be seen. A number had small children in tow, not all of them well-behaved. I saw Rain and Sky Montoya dragging their six-year-old son, Tobias, away from a friendly black Lab with a bandana around its neck. His screams for a puppy of his own cut through the general rumble, as did his mother’s increasingly shrill protestations that this was impossible.
Performers circulated, signing CDs. A Mariachi band had set up in front of the Mexican restaurant on the corner. At the other end of the street, and Folk duo was playing in front of the bank. My head began to pound. All that unrestrained energy beat at me like a hammer. I’d been loath to put up a shield before; a performer needed to feel the mood of the audience, after all. But I’d be no good to anyone if I didn’t get some relief. I drew up some earth energy and threw it around me, and immediately felt better.
The shield helped me as I shouldered my way through the crowd, my stack of CDs cradled in front of me like a child. People sprang away from me by instinct, leaving my path clear. Gaining the front door of the theater, I burst into an area of relative calm and let my shield drop. My headache returned, but it was less than it had been and I could ignore it. I wiped sweat from my forehead and wondered if there were any way I could make it back to the dressing room in the less than fifteen minutes I had left. A burst of applause from the house told me that Andrew Rose had finished his set. Allowing for a five minute changeover and a twenty minute set for Mama’s Choice, I decided I had plenty of time.
Spotting the long table to one side of the lobby where CDs by the various bands playing in the showcase were displayed for sale, I slipped along the concession stand to dump my wares before folks taking advantage of the set change to stretch their legs could cut me off. A couple of people were already there, scanning Bill’s compilation CD. I waited to one side, wanting a word with the person running the counter. Then the couple moved along and I saw who it was.
The beautiful, black-haired woman raised her ice blue eyes to mine.
“Caitlin!” Breda Ni Fhearraigh’s voice was tart. “How wonderful to see you. I always loved that dress. Your hair sucks, though.”
I plopped my stack of CDs onto the table beside a fishbowl bearing the legend, “Donate to KGOR, YOUR volunteer-run radio station!” in bright blue crayon on orange construction paper.
“Hello, Breda,” I replied, pretending to straighten my CDs. “Look, can we call a truce?”
Her eyes flashed. “I’m not the one who decided to pitch a fit about this festival. I can’t believe it, Caitlin! Sometimes I wonder if Frank and Lisa aren’t right about you. No fear like fear of fame.”
That stung. “Frank and Lisa can…” I hissed.
All at once Breda relented. “Let’s just forget it. No good you getting upset before your gig.”
I regarded her narrowly. I missed Breda quite a lot and wanted her friendship back, but I couldn’t help but feel there would be a price on her renewed goodwill.
She returned my gaze, the picture of innocence in her black silk jacket and plum camisole. The silver on her fingers gleamed in the low lobby lights as she brushed her black bobbed hair back behind one ring-bedecked ear.
“All right. And…I’m sorry,” I mumbled.
“Well, you can make it up to me. In fact,” her face glowed as she sprung her trap, “you can make it up to me tomorrow. Come to the poetry reading with me tomorrow night and all will be forgiven.”
“The poetry reading?” I groaned. “Oh, Breda, please. Not that.”
“I really need you to come.”
“Why? You know how I hate poetry readings. All that angst. It gets under my skin.” I gave her a meaningful glance, to be sure she got it.
“I do know.” She returned my gaze; she got it, all right. Other than Timber, only she knew of my powers. “I also know you’re not exactly helpless against that.”
“I need you to come because everyone knows how much you hate readings.” I must have looked as mystified as I felt, because she went on, “I’m worried about this, Caitlin. The Writers’ Guild wanted Friday night, but I couldn’t give them Friday night because of the pub crawl. I promised them we’d have a great turnout even on a Thursday. Everyone knows how much you hate readings, so if I can leak that you’re going, everyone will think that there must be something pretty terrific in store to attract you, and they’ll come too. It’s simple, really.”
I stared at her. “You have an evil mind.”
“So you’ll do it? I’ll fix your hair,” she wheedled.
I sighed. “Oh, all right. But I’ll have to take a rain check on the hair. We’re on in…” I glanced up, noticing that the lobby had become very still. Only a few people loitered, some getting popcorn or beer, some chatting in the alcove in front of the restrooms, and a couple pointedly waiting for me to be done with Breda so they could have a chance at the CDs. The high, lonesome sound of Mama’s Choice drifted through the heavy velvet curtains separating the lobby from the theater proper. The clock over the concession counter read eight-twenty. “Crap. We’re on in ten minutes. Gotta run.”
Spinning around, I suited actions to words, but I only made it as far as the door before colliding with a couple just coming in. or a few seconds the three of us did a stupid little dance, trying to get out of each other’s way. Then the man grabbed me by the elbows, picked me up and set me aside, grinning.
“Caitlin!” He exclaimed. “How’s it going?”
Vic Houston’s official bio described him, not very originally, as “a long, tall drink of water.” It did not say that his wiry frame was all muscle; I am not a small woman and not many could have manhandled me as casually as he did. There was something of the wolf in his craggy good looks: shaggy blond hair gone almost all the way grey, a sharp nose and chin and melting brown eyes. I saw something of the wolf in his grin, too. He looked as though he couldn’t decide whether to romp with me or eat me. Maybe both.
If I had been the one on Vic’s arm, I would have objected most strenuously to his turning that grin on another woman. Cassiopeia Jones, however, was one of those rare people who looked for the good in everyone around her and generally found it. A warm smile in her grey eyes, she held out her blue silk-clad arms to me. I hugged her, taking care not to snag my dress on any of her expensive turquoise jewelry. She had quite a lot of it on, from matching necklace and earrings set in silver to a rope of rough stones looped around her left boot. She didn’t usually go around flaunting her wealth like that, but she would be playing later tonight and had dressed the part.
I knew Vic would be joining her for a song or two, but he hadn’t taken any trouble over his appearance. In fact, he looked almost drab in his faded blue jeans and Guatemalan shirt. Around his neck he sported a macramé hemp and bead choker of the sort I had seen on a lot of the alternative crowd lately. Vic’s was remarkably ugly. The beads were a nasty bluish-purple color, with streaks of green like an old bruise, and the cord was grimy, as if he had been wearing it for a while without bothering to wash. A single blue crystal teardrop lay in the hollow of Vic’s throat, the only thing of beauty about the piece.
“Have you been on yet?” Cassie asked as she released me.
I shook my head. “We’re on next.” I listened for a minute to the faint sound of a mandolin solo coming from the theater. “In fact, I need to get backstage. It sounds like Mama’s Choice is finishing up.”
“Oh, I wanted to hear them!” Disappointment rang clear in Cassie’s voice. I kept my face blank. Mama’s Choice was the new act in town and everyone wanted to hear them. It had been a couple years since Red Branch had that kind of appeal.
“You’ll get a chance on Saturday,” Vic soothed her.
I heard the mandolin solo end in a flourish, then a number of cheers and a crescendo of applause. Out of the corner of my eye I saw people begin to shove their way through the lobby curtains.
“I’ve really got to…” I began, attempting to shove my way between Vic and Cassie. Vic grabbed my arm.
“You’ll never get around; the street is jammed. Anyway, I wanted to ask you something about Saturday.”
“What about it?” I began walking backward through the lobby, dragging him along. Cassie trailed in our wake. My gaze met hers over Vic’s head; she rolled her eyes at me.
“Well, Bill and I were wondering if Red Branch would consider switching spots with Mama’s Choice.”
I froze. I knew the order of performance. Mama’s Choice had an afternoon spot, at four-thirty, when people would be tired from spending the day in the park and thinking about going home for dinner. Red Branch had a prime evening spot at seven, when all those folks would be rested up and returning ready to party.
“No.” I said.
“But your music is more restful, Caitlin,” Vic pleaded. “Better for winding down the afternoon. Mama’s Choice is…”
“I don’t care what Mama’s Choice is.” Restful? I’d give him restful! Let him try dancing a few jigs and reels and then tell me if he thought Celtic music was restful. Anyway, I knew it was just an excuse. Bill and Vic wanted to put us out of the way because we didn’t quite fit in. Celtic music didn’t have the draw that Bluegrass did. Besides—I had to admit it—we weren’t very good. After almost three years of playing together, Red Branch couldn’t match the polish Mama’s Choice showed even in their infancy.
“We fixed the schedule a month ago, Vic,” I told him. “Next festival you can do whatever you want. Not this one. Now I have to go.”
As if on cue, I heard Timber’s voice roar from the theater.
“Caitlin! Get in here!”
I tore my arm out of Vic’s grasp. His grin had vanished, replaced by a flat, cold look of disapproval. I remembered he had a reputation as a bad man to cross.
Ever the peacemaker, Cassie came up between us. Are we going to have coffee soon?”
What an inane question, I thought, but I said, “Sure. Call me.”
“Caitlin!” Timber bellowed again. I heard laughter from the audience and my face burned.
I turned and ran, across the lobby and through the curtains, and down the center aisle to the stage where my band awaited me, Timber concerned, Frank smiling into his guitar, and Lisa looking thunderous, as usual. They had just better play well tonight, I thought as I grasped Timber’s outstretched hand and he hauled me up beside him. It’s only four songs; surely we can manage that much.
Timber thrust my flute at me. I took it in my left hand, grabbed my mic stand with my right and flashed my best stage smile out over the house.
“Good Evening!” I sang out. “We’re Red Branch and we’re going to be playing some songs and tunes to lighten your heart and your feet, so kick off your shoes and clear the aisles! We’re going to start off with a set of jigs; this is ‘The Kesh,’ ‘The Lilting Banshee,’ and ‘The Connaughtman’s Rambles.’”
I gave the beat and raised my flute to my lips, smiling all the while. But I couldn’t help noticing, with a sinking sensation deep in the pit of my stomach, that half the audience had vanished.