Tempest Raj tested the smooth, hardwood floor once more. Following the floorboards from the beaten-up steamer trunk with three false bottoms to the window letting in moonlight, she didn’t hear a squeak anywhere. Good.
In the dim light, she walked the length of the room once more in her crimson ballet flats that were wearing thin over her left pinkie toe. She glanced at the antique clock on the wall. Seven minutes past midnight. There was no way she’d get to sleep for hours.
Satisfied that the floor wouldn’t make a sound, she stretched her shoulders, then arched into a backbend kick-over. As soon as her feet touched down, she pushed off into a pirouette. Then another. Spinning, she felt almost free.
When she came to an abrupt halt a full minute later, she was breathing harder than she should have been, and she hadn’t vanished. Of course she hadn’t. This wasn’t a stage. There was no trap door underneath her. No audience. She was no longer The Tempest. She was simply Tempest Raj, back at home in her childhood bedroom. And apparently, she was already getting out of shape.
She took a bow for an audience of no one, then kicked off her shoes and flopped onto the bed. Unlike the solid floorboards, the box springs protested with a dreadful screech. The twin-size mattress poking her hip was oh-so-different from the luxurious California king she’d had in Las Vegas up until two weeks ago—when she’d had to sell nearly everything she owned and get out of Dodge.
She was trying to adjust. Really, she was. The schedule of a stage magician meant she never made it to bed until the “wee hours of the morning,” as Grannie Mor would say. But she needed sleep. Tomorrow was a big day. No, that wasn’t quite true. It might be a big day. She knew she shouldn’t get her hopes up. The proposal he mentioned might mean a number of things. She’d narrowed it down to the two most likely possibilities, one of which she was desperately hoping for. It was her way out of this mess. As for the other possibility? She’d decide what she thought after she saw him.
She shifted and tried to get away from the most offensive mattress spring. Looking up at the glow-in-the-dark stars from her childhood that still dotted the ceiling, Tempest wondered yet again how she’d gotten here. Everyone believed the stage accident that had wrecked her career and nearly killed her was due to her own negligence. The public, her manager, the venue, and even her supposed friends were quick to accept the worst about her, assuming it was true that she’d replaced the vetted illusions for something far more dangerous. Tempestuous Tempest, who knew she couldn’t top her previous show, but went too far trying to, putting her own life and those of many others in danger … Her actions preparing for the new, unsafe stunt had supposedly been witnessed. But there was someone who could easily impersonate Tempest. Her former stage double, Cassidy Sparrow.
When Cassidy dyed her naturally mahogany hair black, she looked eerily similar to Tempest. Cassidy wasn’t quite Tempest’s doppelgänger, but with her strong and curvy five-foot-ten frame, large brown eyes, and wild black hair that reached halfway down her back, she came close.
Cassidy had purposefully wrecked Tempest’s career. Sabotage. The threat of lawsuits still hung over Tempest’s head like a guillotine.
There was no other explanation for what had happened that terrible night. No, that wasn’t quite true. There was one other possible explanation, but Tempest couldn’t let herself believe it. There was no way it could be true. The first glimmer of such a terrible possibility appeared five years ago, when she first began to wonder if—no. She pushed all thought of it from her mind.
At least one person besides her family believed in her innocence. That’s why she was hopeful about seeing him tomorrow. This could be the first step in getting her life back on track.
She closed her eyes, but they popped back open. The constellations on the ceiling didn’t mirror reality, but if you looked carefully, you could see that the pinpricks of light formed a constellation in the shape of a skeleton key. A symbol that connected her and her mom, guiding the way home.
Tracing the familiar path of the stars must have been like counting sheep, because the next thing she knew, far too much light was streaming in through the window. She squeezed a pillow over her eyes—then flung it away as she realized it wasn’t the light that had awakened her. She’d distinctly heard a jarring sound. Strange noises were to be expected in Vegas. Not in Hidden Creek.
Was someone shouting?
Definitely shouting. The raised voices came from the direction of the tree house in the backyard where her grandparents lived.
It wasn’t exactly fair to call the structure a tree house. Not for the past fifteen years, at least. What had started as a small child’s playroom for a ten-year-old Tempest had, like the rest of the house, grown into something much bigger than its original intention. The original tree house deck still wrapped around the massive trunk of the oak tree that had lent its support for years, and a second deck now surrounded its twin, but in between the trees, the rest of the structure was a proper two-story house that served as an in-law unit for Ashok Raj and Morag Ferguson-Raj.
Tempest leapt out of bed, still disoriented. It wasn’t even seven o’clock in the morning. She hadn’t been awake at this time of day for years. Crossing the section of floorboards assembled in the shape of a skeleton key and opening the antique steamer trunk serving as her dresser, she slipped on a pair of jeans and was pulling a T-shirt over her head when she heard her grandfather’s distinctive voice give another shout. She shoved her phone in her back pocket and hurried down the secret staircase that separated her room from the rest of the house.
This was the same house Tempest’s parents had moved into shortly before Tempest was born. At the time it was a modest 960-square-foot bungalow. The most unique feature of the original house was the land that went with it. Nestled into the hillside next to the hidden creek that gave the town its name, the half-acre of land had never been used for a larger dwelling because it was situated on such a steep slope—until Emma and Darius moved in. They had experimented over the years on their own house until it was over 4,500 square feet of magical, hidden hideaways across four separate structures.
As her dad loved to say: What happens when a carpenter and a stage magician fall in love? They form a Secret Staircase Construction business to bring magic to people through their homes.
The idea was quite romantic. Tempest’s parents specialized in building ingeniously hidden rooms for people who fancied a bookshelf that slid open when you reached for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes or Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase; or a secret reading nook that only appeared when you said the words “open sesame”; or perhaps a door in a grandfather clock that led to a secret garden. Tempest’s house—named Fiddler’s Folly for her mom’s favorite instrument, and a tongue-in-cheek reference to the architectural term for decorative buildings different inside than their outward appearance—had all three features. And many more, including the tree house in back. Tempest loved every inch of it. What she didn’t love was the fact that at twenty-six, she’d been forced to move back.
Worse yet, if she didn’t receive the job offer she hoped for today, she’d be forced to accept her dad’s idea that she come work for Secret Staircase Construction. She’d been named one of the “Top 25 Under 25” young entertainers in a prominent entertainment magazine three years ago, and that success meant she could not only live lavishly but also send money home. It was humiliating enough to be back in her childhood bedroom, but to work as her dad’s assistant when she knew he didn’t need one? She hoped it didn’t come to that.
Tempest rounded the gnarled trunk of the first oak tree and spotted her grandparents. Grandpa Ash and Grannie Mor were the only two people in sight, and they were scowling. Tempest grimaced as she stepped on a sharp root. She hadn’t taken time to put on shoes.
“You two finally decided to murder each other after fifty-five years?” Tempest asked, rubbing the ball of her foot.
“Fifty-six years, dear,” her grandmother corrected. Grannie Mor’s glamorous white hair was perfectly coiffed as usual, an argyle scarf of bright azure and white curled effortlessly around her neck. She always looked as if she’d stepped out of a 1940s Hollywood movie. Except as soon as she opened her mouth to speak, you knew she’d been born and raised in Scotland.
“Where did he go?” Grandpa Ash asked. A plaid newsboy cap covered his bald brown head. Tempest hadn’t seen that particular hat before. Her grandfather’s hat collection was as extensive as her grandmother’s stockpile of scarves.
“Someone else is here?” Tempest whipped her head around.
Grannie Mor hooked her arm through Tempest’s elbow. “That rabbit of yours is the devil himself.”
Tempest sighed. Now she really wished she’d taken time to put her shoes on. “What did Abra do now?”
Abracadabra was Tempest’s five-year-old, fifteen-pound, lop-eared rabbit. He’d already been a big bunny before Grandpa Ash began feeding him under the table. Tempest could have sworn Abra had gained at least a pound since they’d been back. The mischievous, tubby bunny should have been in his hutch in Secret Fort, the unfinished stone tower that made up the most recent Fiddler’s Folly structure on the hillside.
“He ran that way.” Grannie Mor pointed up the hill. “Whiskers must have attempted to invade his territory.”
Abracadabra’s favorite pastime, besides eating, was chasing cats. He was used to having free rein during the day, because he always came home. But that was back in Vegas. In his new surroundings, Tempest was keeping him in his hutch unless he was supervised, but clearly Abra was having none of that. The massive gray lop was smarter than your average rabbit. Or at least Tempest thought so. Maybe all rabbits were this intelligent, but she’d never had the opportunity to find out. In a lifelong attempt to eschew magician stereotypes, she’d never owned a rabbit before receiving Abra as a gift. She hadn’t planned on keeping him, but it was love at first bite. The curmudgeonly bunny was a superb judge of character and had bitten the awful woman who was dating Tempest’s friend Sanjay. Who could give up such an intelligent creature after that?
“Abracadabra!” Tempest called. “Come on, Abra.”
“He’ll show up in his own good time.” Morag led the way back to the tree house. “Your grandfather was fixing breakfast when he spotted Abra on the loose. He insisted we check on the rascal. I hope his affection for that rabbit hasn’t burnt our kitchen down.”
“That rabbit is going to get into trouble one of these days,” Ash called after them before shaking his head and following them back to the house.
Tempest agreed. She reluctantly went with her grandmother, telling herself that Abra had as many lives as a cat.
They followed the downward slope of the hill to the bright red front door of the tree house. No ordinary key unlocked this door. The door handle was smooth, with no opening for a key. It was the grinning gargoyle door knocker that held the secret to letting you into the house. The person standing on the threshold needed to place a three-inch brass skeleton key sideways in the gargoyle’s mouth, as if he was clenching it in his pointy teeth, then twist. As the gargoyle’s teeth bit down on the key, the door unlocked.
The door wasn’t locked just now. Even if it had been, it wasn’t especially secure. This was never meant to be a permanent house. Much like the rest of the dwelling, the front door lock was one of Tempest’s parents’ many experiments to create whimsical keys for indoor secret rooms. When her grandparents moved in five years ago, they never got around to installing a proper lock. It wasn’t like much crime ever happened in Hidden Creek. The only crime of interest that had happened in the town’s long history was the one that involved Tempest’s own family.
Tempest glanced at the eight silver charms dangling from the bracelet she wore all the time. The thick bracelet, made up of chunky charms related to her mom Emma’s love of magic, was the last thing her mom had given her before she vanished live onstage five years ago. The vanishing act wasn’t part of the show, and Emma Raj hadn’t been seen since. That was the first time Tempest began to wonder if the legendary Raj family curse was real.
The charms brushed against each other as Tempest climbed the stairs to her grandparents’ kitchen. At the top, she closed her eyes and breathed in the fragrant aroma of ginger and cardamom filling the air. When she opened her eyes two seconds later, her grandfather was stirring a simmering pot of jaggery coffee with a wooden spoon, as if he’d been there the whole time.
“Don’t do that,” Tempest grumbled. “Um … How did you do that?”
Ash laughed. At eighty, her grandfather could do a better vanishing and reappearing act than she could. And she knew she was good.
She couldn’t take all the credit. Magic was a part of Tempest long before she was born. Ashok Raj was born in the Indian state of Kerala eighty years ago into a family of famous traveling magicians. But Grandpa Ash was no longer a professional magician, and hadn’t been for more than sixty years.
“A magician never reveals his secrets.” Ash smiled to himself as he turned off the burner and dipped a ladle into the pot of sweet and spicy coffee. He handed Tempest a steaming mug. “It’s good to have you home.”
She wasn’t sure what counted as home these days. She’d returned briefly five years ago, taking a leave of absence from college to join the search for her missing mom. She hadn’t returned to school, even after all the evidence pointed to one thing: Emma Raj had died by suicide, drowning herself in the bay.
The sea was at the heart of the Raj magic dynasty—and its curse. From the founding of the magic troupe on the rainbow-colored beaches of Kanyakumari to the Scottish selkie folklore that Tempest’s mom and aunt used in their show, water illusions were the soul of all Raj family magic. It was a self-fulfilling mythology. One that had now ensnared Tempest. When her mom vanished and was presumed dead, the idea that had previously seemed ridiculous—really, a curse?—finally lodged in Tempest’s brain as something that might have been more than superstition born of bad luck. And now, after what happened this summer, she wondered … could it really be true?
Tempest gripped the warm mug of coffee, savoring the safe normality. Her mom’s presumed death in the water five years ago was too close to her own near-death experience this summer. Pushing thoughts of the family curse aside, she blew on the steaming coffee and ran a hand through her hair. Her fingers caught in a tangle almost immediately. She hadn’t glanced in a mirror since waking up, but she knew what her voluminous black hair looked like in the morning.
“Would you like the name of my hair stylist?” Morag asked. “Let me write down her number.”
Tempest didn’t think she’d ever seen Grannie Mor with a hair out of place, even when she’d been painting in her art studio for hours, oblivious to time and the elements, with her skin and clothing covered in paint.
“I promise I’ll look less like Medusa before going out in public, Gran.” Tempest laughed and took a sip of the coffee. More than her grandfather’s words or sleeping in her childhood bedroom, breathing in the unique scent of the South Indian-style coffee made her feel like she was truly at home. Her mom used to make it for her and her best friend, Ivy. At thirteen, being initiated into the ritual of coffee made them feel like mature adults. Ivy had been Tempest’s closest friend when they were kids—until everything fell apart when they were sixteen. Tempest hadn’t spoken to Ivy in years. She wished she could erase everything that had happened, but she knew it was far too late for that. It was yet another reason she dreaded going to work for her dad’s company. Yet another reason she needed today’s meeting to go well.
Tempest savored another sip, then set down the mug. “I should get ready for my ten o’clock breakfast meeting.” She didn’t say so out loud, but she wanted time to go over some of the better ideas she’d sketched in a notebook. The mechanics of the illusions she envisioned weren’t yet fully formed, but the stories behind them were. That had always been one of her greatest strengths. The story came first, and then you figured out how to perform it. Many magicians had tried to mansplain to her why that wasn’t how it worked. But not the guy she was on her way to see. She wasn’t sure if he’d ask for her ideas today, but Tempest needed to be as prepared as possible. This could be her way back to the stage. Back to having a contribution to make in the world. And most importantly, back to recapturing the sense of wonder she’d once found in magic—that she’d once found in life. That sense of awe and wonder had vanished along with her mom, and she’d been chasing it ever since.
Ashok frowned. “Who eats breakfast so late?”
Tempest stole one last sip of caffeine. “Entertainers who haven’t seen seven a.m. in years.”
Her grandfather clucked his disapproval before his head disappeared behind the door of the fridge. He emerged a moment later holding a bowl of thick batter.
“For vada donuts?” Tempest’s mouth watered. Vada was a savory South Indian dish that resembled a donut but didn’t taste like one. Grandpa Ash had combined the classic dish with the sweetness of Western donuts to create one of Tempest’s favorite breakfasts. He’d made it for her the morning after she’d arrived and was thrilled by how many she’d eaten. Grandpa Ash enjoyed food, but his true love was feeding other people.
Ash chuckled. “I knew you were hungry.”
“Maybe just one…”
Within minutes, the scent of chili pepper and honey filled the air. Ash stacked three sizzling vada donuts into a stainless-steel tiffin and filled an insulated travel mug with coffee. He placed the hearty breakfast into a woven basket and scooted Tempest out the door.
It relieved her to find a fluffy gray mass waiting dutifully on the front porch of the tree house. That was one less thing to worry about. Tempest slid the basket to the crook of her elbow so she could scoop the hefty bunny into her arms and get him back inside his hutch.
“What have you got there, Abra? What’s Grandpa Ash been feeding you?” This wasn’t a chunk of carrot stuck in Abra’s teeth. Or food of any kind. He held a piece of black fabric in his mouth. The edges were frayed, as if it had been ripped. Or bitten.
“Where did this come from?” Tempest looked around the yard and didn’t see any obvious signs of destruction. Abra’s nose twitched and he nuzzled her hand. As curious as she was, she didn’t have time to explore where Abra had been digging. After a moment’s hesitation, she tucked the ripped piece of cloth into her pocket. There was more important work to be done. She was on her way to get her life back.
Copyright © 2022 by Gigi Pandian