Crystals and Criminals
Magic & Mystery: Book Eight
Chapter 1 Preview
I’ve never been a good host, a fact that stuck out like a snapped wand as I stood like a stone against the stream of my family and friends pouring into my living room.
The noise of their voices flooded the space and my ears — a sound that should’ve been comforting but only made me anxious instead. There were too many people and too many conversations, but they were all there for me at my invitation.
Beau wrapped an arm around my waist, and I jolted at the unexpected touch. “What’s the matter, Zoe? Cat got your tongue?”
I leaned into him and placed my lips near his ear so no one else could hear. “No, sorry, I’m just a little overwhelmed by all this.”
Beau pulled back to offer me a flash of his warm, honeyed smile. “Good thing you’ve got me here to back you up then, huh?”
I nodded reluctantly. Though hosting a late housewarming party for Beau and me was my idea, I doubted I could’ve gotten through the night if I didn’t have Beau with me.
“You’re Head Witch, remember? If you can handle that, I think you can entertain a few people for an hour or two.”
“Very true. I just don’t know what to do or where to stand or who to talk to or—”
“Relax, Zoe,” Beau interrupted. “They’re your family and friends, not members of the Black Brotherhood or something.”
“Not that we know of, anyway,” I quipped and Beau scowled.
“Very funny. Now come on, let’s go mingle,” he said and led me by the waist toward the crowd of familiar faces that’d formed a circle around the largest of the three coffee tables in the living room.
Practically everyone I knew in Moon Grove had come: Heath Highmore, the Head Warlock; my best friend Mallory Crane; Raina Woods, the Headmistress of Veilside Academy of Magic; Beau’s parents, Sam and Michelle Duncan; Flora Gemwood, my ex-roommate and old colleague from the Moon Grove Messenger, accompanied by her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Officer Ewan Barrett; Marcel Desfleurs, a vampire photographer from the vampire magazine Grave Times; even Berric Mueller, the Chief of the Moon Grove Police Department.
The only person missing was my Grandma Eleanor. The realization of her absence punctured the swell of happiness I’d felt, but I brushed it aside and smiled at those who were there.
“Good evening, everyone, and welcome to our little slice of heaven,” Beau called over the noise, and the room quieted immediately. “Thank you all for coming. Zoe and I are thrilled to have you.”
“We should be thanking you, not the other way around!” Mallory said. “It’s not every day we score an invite to the Head Witch’s house.”
“Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you then,” I said to laughter.
Mallory shook her head and her wild brown curls spilled across her shoulders. “To be fair, there would probably be a riot if Moon Grove found out its Head Witch was living in a palace.”
“At least it would make for some juicy headlines,” Marcel said with a devilish smirk. His eerie eyes twinkled behind his tortoise-shell glasses.
“That’s the last thing I need right now,” I said.
“Here, here,” Heath agreed, beaming.
“Anyway,” Beau interrupted, “There are drinks and snacks set up for everyone in the kitchen so feel free to help yourselves.”
Marcel raised one of his thick, black eyebrows. “I hope that means you’ve accounted for all tastes.”
“Of course. There’s a synthetic blood bag already warming for you,” I said, and everyone burst out laughing.
Beau and I led the way through the living room into the kitchen. “See? You’re doing fantastic, just like I knew you would,” he whispered in my ear as we swept through the swinging door.
“I feel like it’s been years since I last spent time with you,” Flora said when we crossed paths around the corner of the kitchen table, which buckled under the weight of cups, various drinks, and party snacks. She’d looped her arm through Ewan’s, suggesting they’d finally settled their past and gotten back together for good. Ewan looked like he’d never been happier.
“Same here,” I sighed. “I really don’t have any time to myself anymore.”
“Or for me,” Beau added.
“I know the feeling,” Ewan said. “No one works harder than Flora.”
Flora blushed, her four wings fluttering and sparkling as she looked over at Ewan. “You’re just saying that to make me feel good.”
“Is that a crime?”
“You ought to know,” I said. Ewan chuckled and left with Beau to let Flora and I chat. “So, how are things going over at the Messenger and with, well, you know?” I asked, referring to her secret role as a member of the Fairy Bureau of Investigation.
Flora shrugged. “As well as they can, I guess. Things have been pretty quiet on both fronts lately, which is nice. Lilith knows we could all use a break. How are things at the Council since the expansion?”
I let out a long, low exhale. “Stressful. It was bad enough trying to get thirteen witches and warlocks to agree on something, but convincing twenty-six people of various species to do something is like pulling teeth.”
Flora smiled. “I can only imagine. At least things seem like they’re going well at home. Minus that little bit about Beau getting stuck in his doggy form for a while.”
“Oh, you heard about that? Well, let’s hope it never happens again. It was hard to tell who hated it more, me or Luna.”
“Speaking of, where is that sassy little talking kitty? I miss her sarcasm much more than I thought I would.”
“Good question. She’s probably hiding under the covers in our bed, but I bet she’d love to see you too. I wouldn’t judge you if you curled up with her and watched an episode or two of As the Moon Turns.”
“That sounds excellent,” a high-pitched voice said from below. I glanced down to find Luna, my coal-black cat with neon blue eyes, winding her way through Flora’s legs, her tail snaking up toward her knee.
“There you are!” Flora shouted and scooped Luna into her arms — something the cat would never have allowed me to do, but I’d learned long ago while Flora and I lived together that she had a very different relationship with Luna than I did.
“I guess I’ll leave you two to it then,” I said and made my way across the room to where Mallory stood. She looked thoroughly bored, but I couldn’t tell if it was genuine or if it was just her default stare. “Hey, girl. Long time, no see.”
Mallory pushed her oversized glasses up her nose and raised an eyebrow at me. “Yeah, and whose fault is that?”
“Touché,” I laughed and threw my arms around her. She didn’t hesitate to return the hug. “I can’t believe how much we’ve fallen out of touch. We used to talk literally every day.”
“And I repeat: whose fault is that?”
“Ouch, point taken.”
“Good,” she said as she freed herself from my grip.
“So, what’s new with you?”
“Oh, I’m just graduating from Veilside soon. No big deal.”
“What, seriously?! Wow, we really have fallen out of touch.”
“Yes, seriously. It’s been a long time coming, and though I can’t say I’m thrilled about leaving — you know how much I love the library and my books — it’s probably time for me to mosey on.”
“That’s fantastic. Do you have any idea what you want to do after graduating?”
“Yeah, go to graduate school. Duh,” she said and we shared a laugh.
“That’s one thousand percent you.”
“I mean, if I want to be a Healer I have at least another ten years of studying and residency left anyway, so I figure I might as well roll right into the next step while I’m still sharp.”
“Not that she has anything to worry about in the smarts department,” Raina said as she stopped beside us wearing a warm smile and flowing, regal purple robes. “What Mallory failed to tell you is that she’s not just graduating, she’s graduating at the top of her class.”
Mallory’s fair, freckled face flushed red. “Oh, stop. It’s really not that big of a deal.”
“It’s not a surprise, either. I always knew you were one spell of a witch.”
The blush on her face deepened to a shade of purple. “Thanks. That means a lot coming from you, being Moon Grove’s magical prodigy and all.”
I didn’t know how to answer her compliment, but luckily Raina saved me.
“Honestly, I think Mallory’s talents go far beyond what’s required of a Healer. I’ve been encouraging her to consider entering the MagiTech business instead — Lilith knows we need more witches in that industry — but she doesn’t seem interested,” she said.
“That sounds like it’d be a great fit,” I agreed. “A witch with your skills in research and magic would probably make waves.”
“Maybe, but I don’t even know what I’d do in an industry like that. Who wants to work with a bunch of good ol’ warlocks, anyway?” Mallory asked.
“You should at least browse around at the Business Fair tomorrow, dear. You might be surprised at what you find,” Raina said. “I’ve heard through the grapevine that there are going to be some very prominent, powerful witches looking for young talent. You’ll be there too, won’t you, Zoe?”
“Yeah, definitely,” I said, though I’d completely forgotten about the event until she mentioned it.
Mallory shrugged. “It’s not like I have anything better to do, so I guess I could swing by.”
“Good,” Raina said with an approving smile and left to go talk to Marcel and Mitch.
“Speaking of MagiTech, have you heard all the hullabaloo about this Madame Astra and her dumb app?” Mallory asked.
“I’m sorry, Madame Who?”
Mallory rolled her eyes. “You know, for being Head Witch, you’re awfully uninformed about what’s going on around you,” she said as she rummaged in the pockets of her robes.
After a few false tries, she eventually produced her phone and unlocked it to swipe over a couple screens. She jabbed her finger at an app icon of a purple crystal ball titled “Astra’s Answers.”
“I can’t believe you haven’t heard about this thing. Everyone at Veilside is going crazy over it,” she said and tapped to launch the app. It opened to a black screen dotted with constellations, and the same purple crystal ball from the icon melted into existence. In its center, the words “The answers are written in the stars. What truths do you seek?”
“What is this, some sort of fortune telling thing?”
“Yes, and no. You can ask it for advice or a reading of your star chart and share the results with other people from your contacts who also have the app. The catch is, the readings disappear after they’re opened.”
“Why would anyone want to share their psychic readings with their friends? Isn’t that pretty, well, personal?”
Mallory threw her hands in the air. “Spell if I know. Like I said, it’s dumb, but everyone’s using it, especially since word spread that Madame Astra herself is going to be at the Business Fair tomorrow. Word is she’s trying to sell her app to the highest bidder.”
“Sounds like a smart businesswoman, if nothing else.”
“Definitely. I can’t even imagine what something like this will end up selling for, but I bet she’ll never have to work again.”
“Must be nice.”
“Right? Kinda makes me wanna reconsider becoming a Healer and get into MagiTech instead. Maybe Raina’s right.”
“So is the magic behind this app legit or is it pre-made stuff it’s feeding to people?”
Mallory shrugged. “That’s the million-Moon question, isn’t it? Madame Astra claims she’s the one behind each and every reading — and she’s highly skilled in Divination, so it’s possible she’s telling the truth — but I can’t see how she could possibly be doing all these readings herself. There’s gotta be thousands of them every hour.”
“Well, if there’s anything I’ve learned since moving to Moon Grove, it’s that anything is possible with magic.”
“Here, give it a shot and see for yourself,” Mallory said and forced her phone into my hands. “Just type whatever question you want answered and tap the little crystal ball when you’re ready to send it.”
I stared down at the screen apprehensively. What could I even ask about? I’d never been one to give into suspicion, but like Mallory, there was something oddly intriguing to me about the app. Worst case scenario, it’d give me something silly and I could go about my night, but what if…?
My fingers blazed across the screen to tap out a question — “Where’s Grandma Eleanor and is she okay?” — and I smashed the crystal ball before I could think twice. The text of my question liquified and entered the crystal ball, which animated in a purple swirl like a shaken snow globe, and the text, “Consulting the Cosmos, Please Wait,” appeared at the top of the screen.
The phone dinged and vibrated in my hand to announce the arrival of my results, and Mallory peeked over my shoulder to read them.
“It’s natural to be concerned about the ones we hold dearest, but fear not: your grandmother is safe and closer than you think. Would you like to ask another question?”
Mallory and I exchanged looks, and she shrugged. “I guess that’s good news, right?”
I passed the phone back to her. “Yeah, I guess. It wasn’t very specific, though.”
“I take it that means you think it’s a scam?”
“Not yet, but this Madame Astra certainly has my attention. You said she’s going to be at the Business Fair tomorrow?”
“She is, but I doubt I’ll be able to get any face time since everyone and their familiar will be lining up to see her, but it’s worth a shot. I dunno why, but I’m fascinated by the whole thing. Morbid curiosity, I guess.”
“That makes two of us. You know what? I bet the Head Witch could skip to the front of the line,” I said, and Mallory’s eyes shot wide open.
“Oh, I swear to Lilith I wasn’t fishing for your help, but that’s genius! Are you serious?”
“Why not? Heath and I are supposed to get a tour of the Fair tomorrow from the President of the Chamber of Commerce anyway, and this Madame Astra sounds interesting. We’ll call it a girl’s day out.”
A smirk curled a corner of Mallory’s mouth. “Things rarely go well when you and I spend time together.”
“Oh, come on. What kind of trouble could we really get into at a Business Fair of all places?”
Her smirk bloomed into a devious full smile. “Famous last words, but I’ll take you up on the offer.”
“Good. Meet me at the Town Hall tomorrow around, say, nine?”
“I wouldn’t miss it.”