Excerpt from “The Witch of Willow Lake”

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The photo above is one I had shared on Facebook a couple years ago because I found it hilarious and unbelievable, and then forgotten about it. It came up again in my news feed as a Facebook Memory. Once again, I found it funny, though this time it was because I recently wrote a scene in The Witch of Willow Lake which this photo could almost illustrate. I’m going to post a little piece of that scene.

In this scene, Kyr discovers the existence of a piece of evidence that may prove very important to the mystery she, Spook, and the Petery brothers are investigating at Willow Lake College. Her dedication, however, is beginning to border on obsession, and Spook is trying to make her see that she needs to back off.

From The Witch of Willow Lake, Chapter 2:

***

After work, I scarfed down some leftovers, rushed through my evening routine, reheated a cup of leftover coffee, and sat down at my laptop to do a search for Biddlesbach’s book. I glanced at the clock—seven thirty-five. I was certain I could hop online, find the book in question, figure out how to get my hands on it, and be done by eight o’clock so I could call Spook and tell him the ball was firmly in my court.

Naturally, my first inclination was to check the Willow Lake Public Library. If a book written by a Willow Lake native would be anywhere, that was the most likely place. I accessed the library’s website and then clicked on their online catalog. While I waited to be redirected onto the correct page, I tapped my fingers nervously on my coffee cup.

When the OPAC page came up, I entered the title of the book in the search bar and hit the Go button. I was a bit taken aback when the results page listed a number of similar titles, but didn’t include the one I was looking for. For several minutes I tried different search criteria, which always led to the same result—a lot of similar books, but Biddlesbach’s not among them.

“Okay, let’s try something different,” I muttered, starting over and entering Biddlesbach’s name in the author search. I hit Go and sat back, sipping my coffee and trying to ignore the all-too-familiar feeling that I was heading down a dead-end road. A list of authors with similar-sounding names popped up, but again, no Biddlesbach. I set my mug down with a thump, ignoring the coffee that sloshed out onto the desk. Muttering to myself, I sat forward to look more closely at the list, as if doing so would make the name I was searching for suddenly appear.

I repeated the process with the Willow Lake College Library, searching through lists of both books in the stacks and archived works. Not surprisingly, I had the same lack of success there. “At least I have a personal contact here,” I muttered to myself as I shot an email to Mrs. Rutter. She would be able to tell me if the college had ever had the book on the shelves and what had happened to it if it had.

The next logical step was to widen my search to include the entire county library system, and then some of the surrounding counties as well. With each unsuccessful search, I grew more and more frustrated. I knew I wasn’t searching for a best-seller, but could it really be this difficult to find a book? This was the 21st century, for crying out loud.

I chastised myself for being the least bit surprised. After all the other dead ends we’d hit so far, this was just par for the course, wasn’t it? I just get the sense that the ball isn’t in our court at this point. As I sat back in my chair, thinking about my next step, Spook’s voice echoed in my mind. I shook my head to silence the thought. I couldn’t accept that. I grabbed a pen and paper and began listing all the websites I could think of where I might find the book. Spook had told me once that my research skills were impressive. Well, prepare to be impressed again, Mr. Steele. My lips curled up in determination as I set to work.

Knowing that Biddlesbach’s book would likely have been published by a small local press and would only have held the interest of people in and around Willow Lake, for the time being I avoided searching Amazon and large chain-bookstore websites, instead focusing my search on independent bookstores in and around Willow Lake that had internet presence or email addresses where I could contact them. The shadows in the room lengthened, and my eyes grew blurry as I squinted into the glare of the computer screen. I sighed and took a sip of my now-lukewarm coffee. With a grimace, I set it down and propped my chin on my fist.

“Time to bring out the big guns,” I grumbled. Being a children’s librarian, I generally didn’t have to search for out-of-print books in my department. However, I occasionally dealt with other patrons who needed older, out-of-print books, usually for genealogical or historical projects, which meant I had a ready list of rare and out-of-print book websites already in my head. As I reached for my pen to start jotting down websites, I noticed how dark the room had grown. A glance at the clock on the wall told me it was already past nine o’clock. I groaned inwardly and switched on the desk lamp next to the computer so I could see. Just another half hour, I promised myself. If I don’t find anything in another half hour, I’ll quit for the night.

For the next thirty-plus minutes, I methodically went down my list, trying to locate either Biddlesbach or his book, but to no avail. As my list grew shorter, my frustration and discouragement grew. It was as if the book and any record of its existence had simply vanished. The minutes continued to slip away as my fingers flew across the keyboard, typing in requests for help finding the book on every obscure bookstore website I could find online.

I lost all sense of time, and had even forgotten about calling Spook until Copa Cabana suddenly blasted right next to my elbow. As I picked it up to answer, I saw that it was almost ten o’clock. “Hi, Spook,” I said absently, still scrolling through a book list.

“Ah, you are still awake.” He sounded tired, and I realized that he had likely been waiting up for my call. “You didn’t have another library meeting, did you?”

“No.” I crossed one bookstore off my list and moved along to the next. “Just doing some research and lost track of time.”

He was silent for a moment, obviously weighing my words. “Research, hmm? On what, as if I didn’t know?”

I exhaled loudly through my nose as the bookstore website I’d just entered came up as Page cannot be displayed. “Well, if you already know, why are you asking?” I meant my comment to sound facetious, but it came out as snippy, so I quickly apologized and backtracked. “I came across a piece of information today, and I’m trying to follow up on it. I’m just not having much luck.” I cradled my phone between my shoulder and my ear as I entered Biddlesbach’s name on the next bookstore website.

“At the risk of fueling your obsession…”

“I’m not obsessed,” I interrupted, setting the phone down and setting it to speakerphone so I could talk and research at the same time. “I’m dedicated.”

He chuckled. “Okay, okay, you’re dedicated. What’s your new information?”

I sighed, not missing the tension in his laugh or the skepticism in his comment. “Do you remember when we were trying to find the article about the construction worker who was injured in the bell tower?” When he indicated that he did, I quickly explained that another article had briefly caught my attention as I scrolled past it. “That article was about a local historian who had just published a book about the legends of the Willow Lake area. If I’d known that it might be important to the investigation, I would have made note of it then.”

The tone of Spook’s voice changed as he replied, “Okay, so what’s the author’s name?”

“Kenneth Biddlesbach.”

“Biddles…what?” His tone suggested that he had a sarcastic comment on the tip of his tongue. He didn’t disappoint. “What a moniker! You couldn’t find someone with a normal name like Smith or Jones?”

“Biddlesbach,” I repeated, ignoring his joke. “I came across his obituary when I did a search of books about Willow Lake history. The obituary gave the title of his book, so I’ve been trying to locate it since I got home this evening.”

He was quiet for a moment as he processed the information. I took advantage of his silence to keep going down the list of out-of-print book shops on the current website. “Even with your super-human research skills, you haven’t found the book yet?”

I squinted at the print on the Hidden Treasures Rare Books website for a moment before clicking on the Zoom button to make it larger so I could read the titles on the page. “Biddle, Biddleston, Biddlestone, but no Biddlesbach,” I muttered, hitting the Back button to return to the search engine.

“Kyr?”

“Hmm? Oh, sorry. What did you say?” I was usually better at multitasking, but the late hour and my frustration over my lack of success were making it difficult to focus.

He let out a long sigh. “Never mind, I already know the answer. Kyr m’dear, why don’t you call it a night and talk to me?”

Only a couple bookstores remained on the list, and I really wanted to finish it off before giving up. I knew he’d give me grief if I said that, so I made an attempt at conversation. “So, what did you do today?” No, that didn’t sound lame.

By the tone of his voice, I could tell he thought so as well. “Dad and I had a big job over at the Batdorf farm today.”

“Oh?” Even to my ears I sounded distracted. “What did you do there?” I had taken the phone off speaker and was typing with one hand while holding the phone to my ear with the other.

I thought I detected a change in his voice, but I was too immersed in my task to analyze it. “Well, Mrs. Batdorf was concerned about the giant redwood tree next to her house. You know how big giant redwood trees get, right?”

“Sure, I know.” I tapped on the desk impatiently, waiting for the website to load.

“Luckily, this was a young redwood, so we only had a little under two hundred feet of tree to work with.” He paused, waiting for me to respond.

What had he just said? Something about the tree not being very tall? “That’s good. Taller trees are harder to trim.” I congratulated myself on remembering something he had told me before.

“Still, the tree was higher than our ladder could reach, so we had to improvise.”

I had just found the website of a bookstore that carried mostly books from small, local presses, but I caught the word improvise in his comment and knew it was significant to his story. “So what did you do?”

A slight huff caught my attention, so I held the phone closer to my ear and tried to listen attentively to his next words. “We had to balance one of our ladders on top of her roof and then tie one of her ladders to the top of ours to reach the branches she wanted us to trim…”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“We cut off a dead branch about three-quarters of the way up the tree. When the branch came off, I noticed a big hollowed-out area in the trunk. You’ll never guess what was wedged inside that hole.”

I looked away from the computer screen to cross off the last website on my list. “Hmm? What?”

There was no mistaking the sarcasm dripping from his voice as he responded weightily, “We found the ghost of Mary Bollinger.”

“You found what?” I threw my pen down, now fully focused on his words. “Spook, you did not!”

He let out a humorless laugh. “I knew that would get your attention. Kyr, you need to give it a rest. You’re bordering on obsession here.”

“No, listen…”

“No, Kyr,” he interrupted. “You listen. To yourself. I’m starting to worry about you. You got off work tonight, and right away you started ‘researching.’ It’s now past ten o’clock, and you’re still researching. You can’t even tear yourself away to talk to me, and the only way to get your full attention is to say the name Mary Bollinger.”

His words hit me like a slap in the face. He was right; I was acting as though I were obsessed. I swallowed hard and reached up to shut down my computer. “I’m sorry, Spook.”

“I’m not mad at you, Kyr.” His voice softened as he repeated, “I’m worried about you. I know it’s important to you to get to the bottom of this mystery, but you can’t let it take over your life. For the past couple weeks, that’s all you talk about when I call.”

My mind flitted back over the previous days, and I realized that even before stumbling across Biddlesbach and the mystery book, my life outside of work had taken on the pattern of coming home, scarfing down a quick supper, and hopping on the computer to dig for information about Mary, the fire, and anything else I could find about Willow Lake. Even my conversations with Spook had become mostly one-sided and tended to focus on our ill-fated investigation.

Spook’s voice broke into my thoughts. “Kyr, just let it rest for now. Just put it aside until we see each other, and then we can tackle it together.”

Smiling at the prospect of seeing him again, but knowing it was unlikely with his summer work schedule, I teased, “And when might that be? Are Drac and Gabe planning to revisit the Berkeley mansion this Halloween?” I doubted that was the case, and in any event, I hoped to see him long before Halloween.

He chuckled mischievously. “Not that I know of, but either way, I’ll definitely see you much sooner than that.”

“What are you talking about?” He had my radar up now, and he knew it. “What do you have up your sleeve, Mr. Steele?”

I could picture his wide grin and the roguish sparkle in his deep brown eyes as he replied, “I’m not telling, Ms. Carter. That’s a mystery you’ll have to work out on your own.”

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