The Christmas Witch


Original, short fiction from The Perfectly Proper Paranormal Museum!

Unforgiving, black and white photos of executed murderers stared down at me from the museum’s glossy white walls.

Their glowers were nothing compared to Herb’s.

Quivering with indignation, Herb deposited the museum cat on my checkerboard floor. The black cat darted to the haunted rocking chair in the corner and sprang onto its wooden seat.

“I found GD outside.” The little man blinked accusingly through his coke-bottle glasses.

GD scratched at his new collar and howled. Customers turned, cringing, at the sound.

“GD is obviously unhappy,” Herb continued. “What did you do, Maddie?”

“It’s Detective Hammer.” I untangled the strings of my new marionette. “She told me if he didn’t wear a tracking collar, she’d impound him.” Detective Laurel Hammer and the museum cat had a long, tumultuous history. She blamed the cat – not unjustly – for setting her hair on fire and for running over her foot with a Camaro. The tracking collar was the latest thrust in their escalating war.

Herb’s mouth turned down with suspicion, his nostrils twitching. “Where did you get that?”

Pleased, I jiggled the marionette’s arms. “Do you like it? It’s Befana, the Christmas witch.” Her hook-nosed face grinned. Folds of bright purple fabric from her skirt hung around the broom she rode. Bits of dried baby’s breath stuck from her scraggly hair.

“I know what it is,” the little man snapped. “But I’m your paranormal collector. Where did you get that?”

“You’re not my paranormal collector,” I said guiltily. “You’re freelance.”

“Was it that Jared Loomis?”

“Who?”

“Never mind.” He glanced toward the bookcase. “Then who?”

“A guy dropped by this morning. He said his aunt was downsizing, and he was helping her get rid of her things. She wanted to donate it to the museum.”

“Sounds shifty. How do you know it wasn’t stolen?”

“Because his aunt is Mrs. Marybelle. She visits the museum every month.” My evil plot to have rotating exhibits in the gallery was paying off in repeat customers. Someday, I might actually be able to move out of my aunt’s garage apartment

He rubbed his narrow chin. “A shipment of Italian ceramics was stolen off a pier in San Francisco last week.”

“The Befana’s not a ceramic.”

“Her head is.”

“Who would steal a Christmas Witch to donate to a museum?” I asked uneasily. Because I had thought the stranger was sort of off. In spite of the chill winter air, sweat had beaded his forehead, and he’d looked too many times at the door.

“Do you remember what Laurel did last time you accepted stolen goods?” he asked.

“That haunted wine press was not stolen,” I sputtered. Laurel had been totally irrational about that blasted exhibit – which hadn’t been stolen. But maybe I should double check on the Christmas witch. “Besides, you sold me that press.”

“Er, did I? Well, got to go!” He scuttled to the bookcase and pressed the book that levered it open. Herb escaped through the secret door.

GD crept toward the slowly closing bookcase.

“Oh, no you don’t.” I hurried from around the counter and slammed the bookcase shut. Adele would freak if the cat wandered into her tea room again. She might be one of my best friends, but Adele was militant when it came to food safety.

I thumbed through my card file until I found Mrs. Marybelle’s number and called.

No one answered.

Well. That didn’t mean anything. Maybe she was at the store. Maybe she’d turned off her cell phone. Did she even have a cell phone? But prickles raced up the back of my neck.

Maybe I was a paranoid paranormal museum proprietor.

I tried calling Mrs. Marybelle twice more that day – once in the afternoon and once just before closing.

No answer.

So I called my mother.

“Madelyn! It’s your mother.”

“Yes, I know,” I said. “I called you.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t only call when—” Okay, maybe I did tend to phone when things went wrong.

“Is Mrs. Marybelle in your Ladies Aid Guild?”

“You know very well it’s the Ladies Aid Society, and yes. Why?”

“A guy came by this morning claiming to be her nephew. He donated a Christmas witch from her to the museum. I tried calling her to confirm the gift, but she doesn’t answer.”

“Mrs. Marybelle does have a nephew.”

“She does?” I asked, relieved.

“A thorough rotter.”

I straightened GD’s tip jar beside the register. “Rotter? Have you been reading Agatha Christies again?”

“Of course. She’s wonderful. And I’ll send some of the ladies by Mrs. Marybelle’s house to do a health and wellness check. That is what you wanted, isn’t it?”

“Well, yes, but…” But why did I suddenly feel guilty?

“I’ll expect you and your boyfriend to stop by for dinner soon,” she said. “Let’s say, Saturday?”

“I’ll have to ask him,” I muttered.

“Saturday it is. Bye!” She hung up.

GD leapt onto the counter and rubbed against his tip jar. His whiskers twitched.

“It isn’t funny.”

I turned the sign in the front window to CLOSED and walked around the counter to the door. A shadow passed behind its curtained glass window. I reached for the lock. The door sprang open, knocking me backwards.

“Ow! We’re closed.” I rubbed my shoulder where it had ricocheted off the door.

The man looked like he’d been cast in a thirties gangster film. Sharky eyes. Built like a boxer and with a nose as crooked as Befana’s. A jagged scar down one cheek. But the scar wasn’t half as terrifying as the knife he gripped.

“The cash is in the till,” I squeaked.

“Where’s the doll?”

“Doll?” Involuntarily, I glanced at the museum’s creepy doll collection. The antique dolls, their gowns sooty, gazed back through blank, blue eyes.

GD hissed, a ridge of fur rising on his back. He jolted forward on the counter.

I grabbed the cat mid-launch and pulled him to my chest.

GD thrashed, scoring angry red scratches on my right arm.

The stranger pointed his knife at us, and I shrank against the counter. “I’ll kill that cat if it gets near me.”

“Let me put him outside, and he won’t.” My voice shook.

He pressed the tip of his knife to my neck. “Fine. But remember, it takes two minutes to bleed out. Don’t make me cut you.”

“I won’t,” I whispered. Legs watery, I cracked open the door and dropped GD. The cat bolted down the sidewalk.