High in her hidden turret, concealed by oak trees on the steep hillside and disguised by its improbability on top of a supposedly normal house, the conversation was not going the direction Tempest had hoped.
“Don’t do it.” She held out her hand. “I’m serious. You’ll regret it.”
Her companion didn’t drop the item he held tightly. For three seconds, he didn’t move at all. Then, had the audacity to smile as he moved his hand closer to his lips.
“I warned you.” Tempest looked away, shifting her gaze to the window slit of the secret tower. She didn’t want to see him suffer.
But . . . she was curious by nature, much to her detriment. She turned back in time to see him gasp. He didn’t cough— he’d been a stage performer long enough to know how to suppress a cough—yet his hands flew to his neck and he gasped for air.
“Back in a sec.” Tempest ran down the first of her two secret staircases. It was crude and narrow, with steps more like a slanted ladder than real stairs. If Tempest hadn’t climbed those steps thousands of times, she would have carefully backed out. Instead, with her hands on the smooth larch wood handrails, she was nearly flying as she skidded downward. Once she reached the second and proper secret staircase, lights clicked on every few steps as she passed hidden sensors. Three seconds later she reached the kitchen, where she found sweet coconut-milk rice pudding in the fridge.
Not pausing to make sure she’d closed the fridge door behind her, she lifted the wing of the dragon sconce in the hallway and the hidden door slid open once more. She bounded up the stairs two at a time.
Sanjay’s face was bright red when she reached him, out of breath. He scooped a heaping spoonful of the rice pudding into his mouth and gave a contented sigh. “I thought you didn’t want me to have Ash’s donuts so you could have them all to yourself.”
“Is that what you think of me?” She couldn’t tell if his shrug of a reply was directed at her or was an expression of his relief. Rice and sugar were much better antidotes to spice-induced suffering than water. She also didn’t want to admit to herself the not insubstantial grain of truth in his assumption.
“You weren’t kidding that these donuts weren’t regular pastries. Who puts chili peppers in dessert? These death donuts are all yours.”
Tempest took a bite of one of her grandfather’s heavenly snacks. This batch of vada donuts—one of Grandpa Ash’s unique treats he’d created after retiring—was exquisite. A perfect balance of heat and sweet.
The hidden turret above Tempest’s bedroom was only accessible through the two sets of secret staircases. Many people knew about the existence of the first secret staircase that led to her bedroom, even if they didn’t know how to activate it.
The octagonal secret room at the very top of the house was one Tempest didn’t reveal to many people.
From the yard, the turret looked like an ornamental spire on a quirky house built by Secret Staircase Construction as an experiment, as Tempest’s parents tried out their ideas on themselves before bringing their unique brand of renovation to the homes of other people. In reality, the turret hid a cozy spot for Tempest to think while unencumbered by the world below. After moving back into her childhood bedroom last summer after her world had collapsed, it was a welcome retreat. No matter how dire the immediate circumstances, how much heartbreak and destruction surrounded her, and how frustrating it was to have moved back home into her childhood bedroom after losing her own house, the sight of her very own magical secret staircases appearing before her eyes never failed to lift her spirits.
“In spite of your attempt to kill me,” Sanjay said, “I’m glad we have this time to ourselves.” He took a step toward her. A lock from his artfully disheveled black hair swept across his forehead, causing Tempest’s stomach to do a little flip-flop.
Damn. Why, again, had she thought bringing him up here was a good idea?
Sanjay gave her a shy smile. Tempest groaned. Sanjay was many things, but shy was not one of them.
She crossed her arms and glared at him. “What are you hiding from me?”
He blinked rapidly, but quickly recovered. “You mean this?” He grinned as a bouquet of posies materialized in his previously empty hand, as if from thin air.
Not bad, Tempest admitted to herself. He was dressed not in the tuxedo and bowler hat he wore when he performed on stage as The Hindi Houdini, but in a black short-sleeved T-shirt and chinos. The flowers literally couldn’t have been up his sleeve.
She accepted the bouquet. “Nice cover. You’re avoiding telling me something.” She looked for more signs that he was hiding something but instead found herself getting distracted by his slightly parted lips and large brown eyes. They’d dated once, years ago, when their lives made it impossible to spend much time together. But now that they were both in Northern California within a few miles of each other . . .
“You’re not planning on asking me to be your assistant again, are you?” She’d been the one to command far larger audiences than he ever had. Until the night it all fell apart.
“What? Of course not.” He cleared his throat. She raised an eyebrow at him.
“It’s impossible to say no to Lavinia,” he blurted out.
Of all the things she’d imagined he might say, that wasn’t one of them. Tempest’s dad’s company had recently finished renovating a section of Lavinia Kingsley’s house. Secret Staircase Construction didn’t do normal home renovations. They specialized in bringing real-life magic into people’s homes through touches like handcrafted sliding bookcases that opened when you pulled a favorite book from the shelf, hand-carved grotesques with hidden levers leading to secret rooms, and now that Tempest was working for her dad, personalized magical stories accompanied every nook.
Fifty-five-year-old Lavinia Kingsley, who ran popular local café Veggie Magic, had kicked out her cheating husband a few months ago. Her soon-to-be ex-husband, Corbin, had once used their large, luxurious hillside basement as an office for his writing. Now that he no longer lived there, Lavinia’s directive to Tempest’s dad was to turn the space from Corbin’s writing cave into a combination of a meeting space for her book club, a home office, and a reading nook. There was enough space for all three.
“It’s your fault I’m in this impossible situation,” Sanjay huffed. “I only went to Lavinia’s café in the first place to help you trap that homicidal maniac. By then it was too late. I was hooked by her pie.”
It was a fair critique. But Tempest wasn’t feeling especially generous today. Or for the past several months, if she was honest about it. Not since her life plan had been yanked out from under her. She’d taken steps to put it back together, but it still felt like a jigsaw puzzle with not quite enough pieces slotted into place to see what picture would be revealed. Six months ago, Tempest would never have imagined she’d have gone from a headlining illusionist in Las Vegas to the storyteller who brought magical elements to Secret Staircase Construction and who was secretly looking into a family murder she’d only recently learned wasn’t an accident. But sabotage and family curses will do that to a well-planned life.
“She’s not easy to say no to,” Tempest admitted. The struggles of the renovation were fresh in her mind. “What did she convince you to do?”
“Perform at her housewarming party.”
“That’s great.” Tempest gave him a smile. A genuine one. She knew he didn’t usually accept small jobs, since he was successful enough these days to command large audiences and paychecks, but gigs for friends kept him grounded.
“Try the opposite of great,” Sanjay insisted.
“It’s good for you to accept requests from friends. I can’t imagine she’d want you to do a dangerous act. Besides, she can’t recreate the Ganges River in her backyard.” Sanjay had once escaped from a coffin tossed into the Ganges River in India. It wasn’t even one of his most dramatic stunts.
“She doesn’t want just any type of performance. She wants a fake séance. I’m supposed to help christen in her new, post-Corbin life with a séance that will banish his spirit from the property.”
Tempest’s smile disappeared. “But he’s not dead.”
“You think I didn’t point that out? She insisted it was symbolic. I didn’t mean to say yes.”
“Then tell her no.”
“You agreed it’s impossible to say no to that woman.” “We both know nothing good happens when you agree to do a fake séance.”
“Why do I have to be so damn good at them?” Sanjay was entirely serious. The man had a healthy ego. “You know they’re a waste of my talents. You’re the one who included a séance table in the new layout.”
Tempest scowled at him. “Don’t blame this on me. It’s not a ‘séance table.’ It’s simply a round table. My design included that table for her book club meetings.”
“Your dad built the table with hidden drawers and secret hiding nooks. She told me about them so I could use them to create illusions for the séance.”
“Of course he did. We’re ‘Secret Staircase Construction.’ We don’t do minimalism. What does she want you to do?”
He shrugged. “She left the details to me but wanted something cathartic to feel like she’s banishing Corbin Colt from her life. What kind of name is that anyway? He sounds like an ‘80s action movie hero.”
“It might be a pen name. ‘Corbin’ means ‘raven.’ He plays that up in his supernatural thrillers.”
“He’s a writer? Never heard of him.”
“We were born a couple of decades too late. He had some bestsellers more than thirty years ago, but hasn’t been popular for a long time. He’s a handsome guy now, but he still uses a thirty-year-old author photo on his book jackets. According to Lavinia, that’s why he’s started having affairs.”
“Because he still uses an old photo?”
Tempest rolled her eyes. “Because he’s washed up. He’s grasping at fame that he had ages ago and can’t recreate. He recently turned sixty, which apparently was the catalyst.”
Sanjay snorted. “It wasn’t the catalyst.”
“Until thirty seconds ago, you didn’t even know who he was, besides being Lavinia’s almost-ex-husband.”
“Doesn’t matter. If he’s insecure enough to need to start cheating because he celebrated a particular birthday, one that isn’t even that old, he was most certainly having affairs before now.”
“Wisdom from your mentalism act?”
Sanjay nodded. “I wish I could forget everything I learned about people when I was performing those shows.”
Sanjay was charming enough to be a natural with mentalism, pretending to be a mind reader. Except he hated it. Some of the things he intuited about people, even in the context of a fanciful magic show, disturbed him. He was successful enough these days that he didn’t have to perform mentalism acts. Or séances, for that matter. But he wasn’t kidding. It really was impossible to say no to Lavinia Kingsley.
“Since you know the space so well,” Sanjay continued, “that’s why I was hoping—”
Tempest’s phone rang. She was fairly certain he’d been about to ask her to be his assistant, but he was saved from her comeback by the name that flashed across the screen. Lavinia Kingsley.
Sanjay’s eyes grew wide. “I’m not here. Whatever you say, I’m not with you.”
“Hi, Lav—” Tempest began, but she couldn’t even finish the name before Lavinia spoke over her.
“My new basement was burglarized.”
“What?” Hidden Creek could sometimes feel stiflingly small, but burglaries and robberies were uncommon.
“He wrecked everything.” “He? You saw who—?”
“It was Corbin.” Lavinia’s wrath came through as clearly as if she’d been in the turret with Tempest and Sanjay. “I’m going to kill him.”
How bad is it?” Tempest stepped through the carved wooden archway leading to the newly remodeled basement that Lavinia herself had named “Lavinia’s Lair.” Tempest’s dad, Darius, had carved four skeleton keys into the cedar, signifying the four members of Lavinia’s book club, the Detection Keys. Tempest ran her fingers over the smooth wood of the most ornate key, with a skull and cross-bones on top, before following Lavinia inside.
Sanjay had begged off, saying he had to practice for an upcoming show. It was true, yet Tempest suspected he would have made time if he wasn’t afraid of seeing Lavinia and agreeing to even more than he already had.
“Corbin didn’t damage anything your team built,” said Lavinia. “I thought he did at first, because my papers were strewn about. Sorry you had to come out here needlessly. Turns out he did something far worse.”
Tempest felt her skin prickle. “What?” “I’ll show you.”
Like much of Hidden Creek, Lavinia’s house stood on a steep hillside. A half-hidden basement was mostly underground, leaving room for windows and a door on only one wall. As newlyweds nearly thirty years ago, Lavinia and Corbin had converted the unused space into Corbin’s home office for writing. Lavinia could have moved into a new house to get a fresh start, but she loved her home and its views of the wild hillside.
The basement wasn’t accessible from the house above. Like the nearby detached garage, it could only be reached by an external door. Inside, the underground space had previously been two dark rooms with high ceilings but only a sliver of natural light from two small windows. Tempest took a moment to appreciate the space she and the Secret Staircase Construction team had converted from a dim basement office into a bright and airy getaway. They’d expanded the windows, knocked down an oddly placed interior wall that hadn’t been load-bearing, and added a new partition to separate an entry hallway and half bathroom.
It had been up to Tempest to interview Lavinia to figure out what stories to tell through the physical details. Then the rest of the team figured out structural issues and constructed the pieces. They had only just wrapped up the build. Three distinct sections now filled the open-plan space: a cozy spot for book club gatherings, a reading nook, and a home office for Lavinia to work on business related to her café, Veggie Magic. It no longer resembled the dark and moody space where Corbin attempted to write a worthy follow-up to The Raven, his big hit debut novel that Tempest had always considered a rip-off of Poe. The book followed a man seeking the truth about his wife’s unsolved murder. She’d been found with the feathers of a large black bird surrounding her. As the story progresses, the grieving widower begins to suspect that he himself transforms into a raven when he blacks out. But that setup wasn’t the hook that turned the book into a bestseller. The ending twist was
a good one, Tempest had to admit. But tucked away in his basement office, surrounded by many of the creepy ravens gifted to him by readers, Corbin was never able to write a worthy successor.
Now the first thing anyone entering the underground lair would see when they emerged from the entry hallway was a cozy pub, which they’d named the “Oxford Comma.” It was designed to look as if you’d stumbled across a narrow cobblestone lane in Oxford, England, as a nod to Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Whimsey and Harriet Vane novels, Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop, and other Golden Age mystery novels set in Oxford that Lavinia loved. A merry-go-round horse stood next to the Oxford Comma’s antique door, both of which Tempest had found at a salvage yard, and two stone gargoyles looked down from above. The faux pub’s walls didn’t reach the ceiling, but instead were capped to look like ramparts from the walls of an Oxford college.
To unlock the door, you had to feed a special treat to the merry-go-round horse—a coin from the basket dangling from his mouth. The horse’s jaw pivoted, so if you looked closely, you could activate the lever without a coin. Inside, this was the section of Lavinia’s Lair where the book club would meet around the round table with secret compartments—the table Sanjay would be using for his séance in a few days.
Tempest had made the initial sketch proposals based on the intersection of Lavinia’s favorite classic mysteries and what Lavinia wanted to get functionally out of the space, all the while keeping in mind that the result needed to be not just practical—but magical. To simulate the magic of a cozy pub, there was space on the wall for the projection of a flickering fireplace that could be turned on by a remote control. Stepping out of the Oxford Comma and looking to the right, you’d find a reading nook through a bamboo forest, which captured details from the Japanese honkaku and shin honkaku mystery novels Lavinia loved. To reach the nook, you had to walk through a short passageway that looked like a limestone cave from Seishi Yokomizo’s The Village of Eight Graves and a mini bamboo forest with hidden glass apothecary jars labeled with the names of various metals, a nod to Soji Shimada’s The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. The short path ended at a comfy armchair of purple fabric next to a side table large enough for a reading lamp, mug, and a few books below. This was Lavinia’s personal reading nook.
Beyond the bamboo forest and limestone cave was a reproduction of a dahabeya riverboat, inspired by Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile though much smaller than the one that would have transported Poirot down the Nile on that perilous journey. In this version, only one decorative sail emerged from the wooden riverboat, and instead of multiple rooms, only the infamous lounge had been recreated. An antique wooden desk was the biggest piece of furniture in the room, where Lavinia worked from home when she wasn’t at Veggie Magic. A computer was discretely hidden by a rolltop desk.
A river surrounded the boat, though the water was an illusion, only a painting on the floor. You could walk across the river, since it wasn’t either water or a trench, but that wouldn’t get you inside the boat. The riverboat was five feet above the floor. Under it was the only storage space beyond the visible bookshelves in the pub. To get inside the raised riverboat, unless you felt like getting a workout by hoisting yourself up the high base, you needed to know the secret to getting the gangplank stairway to descend.
Lavinia stepped on a spot on the painted river that looked like a simple stone but in reality was a lever. What looked like a wooden crate on the edge of the boat unfolded into a stairway, and the two of them walked up the steps to the home-office riverboat.
“He took my old Remington typewriter.” Lavinia jabbed her finger at the steamer trunk that served as a coffee table. “The one with a katakana keyboard my mother gave me.”
“Why does he want a Japanese typewriter?”
“It’s a novelty that isn’t worth much.” Lavinia balled her hands into fists before relaxing them. “A true Japanese typewriter is incredibly complex. Katakana typewriters are simpler. The keys mirror Western letters on a standard keyboard. It was a gift from my mother, since it’s a linguistic combination of Japan and the West, like me. Corbin only wanted it because I love it.”
Lavinia Kingsley had long ago gotten used to the confusion her name caused people. Named after a beloved relative of her father, she’d been born in Japan to a Japanese mother and British father who’d been studying Japanese literature. Her father had passed away several years ago at age ninety, and her eighty-seven-year-old mother had been fine on her own until she had a bad fall. Refusing to move into assisted living, Kumiko moved in with her daughter. Temporarily, Kumiko insisted. Needing a wheelchair annoyed her to no end because it made people question her competence even further, never considering that she might hold a PhD or speak an assortment of languages fluently. Lavinia had gotten her love of classic mysteries from her mother, who had a PhD in Japanese and comparative literature. Kumiko was a scholar of the honkaku style of classic Japanese detective fiction—roughly the equivalent of a Western whodunit with a fair-play puzzle plot—among other literary topics.
It was Kumiko who discovered Lavinia’s husband’s infidelities. Even though Corbin had known her for nearly three decades, he continued to underestimate her.
“Why would he take a Japanese typewriter but not mess with anything else?” Tempest scanned the room. What was it that felt off?
“He knows how much that piece of metal means to me. It’s not worth much, if anything. I wouldn’t put it past him to have tossed it into a dumpster on his way home. My mom gave it to me when I first got a job as a bookseller. It’s one of the few things I owned from my life before Corbin Colt. I’ve had it since I worked at the bookstore where I met him. That’s why he wanted it. To take my life away from me.” Lavinia paused and took a deep breath. When she spoke again, the anger was gone. “I really thought damage had been done to the construction at first. I’m sorry I called you before thinking.”
“I could look around just in case one of the crew moved it while finishing the riverboat—”
“It was him. He stole it.”
The more Lavinia spoke, the more it seemed like she was trying to convince herself. She was clearly distressed. Was she thinking rationally?
“I haven’t changed the locks in this section of the house,” Lavinia continued. “Only the main house I live in. Besides your crew, he’s the only one with a key. With so many workers coming and going, and the fact that it’s not accessible from the main house, I thought I’d wait until the work was done. I know, I know. Your team finished up a few days ago. I’ve been so busy planning for the housewarming party that I didn’t do it. I was foolish not to do so. And now he’s got it. Only . . .”
Lavinia hesitated before speaking. “I’ve got a security camera for the front door of the house. Just one. It’s wide-angle, so it picks up the image of anyone who comes into the basement as well. It’s not on all the time but turns on when it detects motion. I looked. I didn’t see Corbin.”
“So it wasn’t him?”
“It wasn’t anyone. Nobody left here with that typewriter. But the thing is . . .” She trailed off.
Tempest waited a few moments. Patience was never one of her strong suits. She walked over to the windows. They looked like they were large enough for a person to fit through, but she knew no one could. The windows only opened a few inches, to let in fresh air and a breeze. She cracked the window next to the riverboat. A bird on a nearby branch took offense and cawed.
Lavinia nearly jumped out of her skin. “That’s what has me annoyed.” She pulled the window shut. “Annoyed at myself, really. For letting the thought even enter my mind.”
“The only thing that triggered the video during the right time frame was a raven.”
From THE RAVEN THIEF by Gigi Pandian. Copyright © 2023 by Gigi Pandian. Reprinted by Permission of the publisher, Minotaur Books.