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Hexes and Hemlines

Excerpt

Hexes and Hemlines

'Tis the night—the night
Of the grave's delight,
And the warlocks are at their play;
Ye think that without
The wild winds shout,
But no, it is they—it is they.

   —Arthur Cleveland Coxe

It didn't take a witch to figure out something was very, very wrong on the thirteenth floor of the Doppler Building.

It wasn't called the thirteenth floor, of course. It was called the Penthouse, and Malachi Zazi lived there. Or....used to live there. At the moment his body was splayed atop a long banquet table, a jagged shard from a shattered mirror protruding from his chest. Deep red blood spatter created a gruesome Rorschach pattern on the snowy white Belgian lace tablecloth.

I took a deep breath and concentrated on not losing my lunch.

Most days I deal in vintage clothing, not corpses. I may be a natural-born witch, but I'm no more comfortable around violent death than any other mortal merchant on Haight Street.

I was here only because SFPD Inspector Carlos Romero had asked for my help. I now understood why.

"When was he found?" I asked.

"This morning," said Inspector Romero. "By his housekeeper."

"Time of death?"

"Medical examiner hasn't determined that, but the victim had guests for a midnight supper. The last ones apparently left around two-thirty."

"The body hasn't been moved? The legs were pointed toward the door like this?"

The inspector nodded. "Everything's as it was found. Including the bird."

"What bird?"

As if on cue, a small brown sparrow swooped past me and landed on the table near the corpse. Looking about brightly, it chirped and hopped about, then flew away. I jumped when a black cat sprang onto the tabletop and gave chase. Feather and fur disappeared into the bedroom.

I clutched my medicine bag and whispered a quick protective chant.

Romero scoffed. "I didn't think witches were scared of black cats."

"I'm not. But a sparrow trapped in the house is a sign of death at hand."

"Yeah, well we got a dead guy on the table."

"But the bird..." I shook my head. "Death is still lurking. It's a bad sign."

"That's nothing," the inspector snorted. "So far we've got a ladder positioned in front of the door to walk under in order to pass into the room. There's a broken mirror over the fireplace, an open umbrella in the corner, and a black cat. Even I know that these are alleged signs of bad luck."

"Don't forget the thirteen chairs at the table," I mused. No point in mentioning that lying atop a table is considered bad luck, and lying down with one's feet pointed toward the door is referred to as the corpse position. "And we're on the thirteenth floor. Not that there's anything unlucky about the number thirteen; quite the opposite. But a lot of people seem to think it's cursed."

I wasn't yet ready to take a close look at the victim. Both because he was dead and what-all... and because there was something decidedly wrong with the body.

It shimmered. How else to describe it? There was something different about Malachi Zazi.

I took a moment to look around the apartment, sidestepping the emergency personnel who were dusting for prints and photographing possible evidence. Besides occasional staccato camera flashes, the only light in the room was a dim amber glow from hand-blown sconces. The apartment reeked of cigar smoke, and carried the slight aroma of last night's dinner. Tall windows were covered by heavy gold- tasseled red-velvet drapes that blocked the afternoon sun; muted oriental rugs covered generous sections of the dark wood floor; vivid oil paintings lined the paneled walls; and plush leather armchairs invited weary visitors to linger by the massive carved fireplace. There were vases of lilies as well as bright orange marigolds— both were flowers of death: the lilies in many western cultures, the marigolds in Mexico for Day of the Dead. The whole apartment looked like a stage set for a Victorian-era play—for some convoluted murder mystery, to be precise.

"Officially, we're on the fourteenth floor," Romero mentioned as he trailed after me. "Not the thirteenth."

"Only because otherwise rational men and women pretend there's no thirteenth floor when they build buildings. It's such a holdover from another time...It's almost charming."

"Charming or not, a man was in here with all these bad luck signs, and now he's dead. Stabbed in the heart. Look, Lily," the inspector continued with a half-embarrassed, half-weary look on his face. "You know it pains me to ask for your help, but I thought you might be able to offer certain...insights into this case. Can you tell me anything?"

I thought for a moment.

"You already know about the bad luck signs. But those are mostly superstitions—except for the mirror, and the ladder. Oh, and the poor bird. But even if they were potent, they wouldn't lead to murder. Bad luck omens are more subtle than that, and they tend to work on a bit of a time delay."

"So he was just an eccentric guy who liked signs of bad luck? You don't...'feel' anything?"

I took a deep breath and approached the body.

"May I touch him?"

"Go ahead."

I reached out and laid the fingertips of my left hand on Zazi's cold, waxy forehead. He looked only a little older than I, maybe early thirties. Despite the grayish tone of his skin, it was clear he had once been good looking. Dark hair and delicate wings of eyebrows set off even features.

Closing my eyes, I concentrated on filtering out the static caused by all the people in the apartment; their nervous energy bounced off the walls and filled the available air. I focused my powers, subsumed my conscious self, and allowed myself to be a conduit.

Nothing.

People—normal people—give off sensations, even several hours after death.

Malachi's hands were soft, no calluses or signs of a man who worked with his hands. He wore a ring, a tarnished silver snake that wound around his left finger. Turning his hand palm-up, I looked for the faint lines of fingerprints, the markings common to most every normal human on the earth.

The skin was slick, almost shiny. Even the palm showed no lifelines; nothing.

"Could someone roll him for prints?" I asked Carlos.

"What are you looking for?"

"I don't think he'll have any."

"What, you mean like you?"

"Like me."

Our eyes met.

Some of us are born without fingerprints. There is a documented, albeit rare, medical condition associated with the lack of prints. Still, I sometimes wondered whether there was something metaphysical about it, as though certain folk are meant to go through life without leaving a trace...but then I decided I was just a weirdo.

Apparently, so was Malachi Zazi.

"Maybe you should check out his DNA," I mentioned.

"What for?"

"Make sure he's human."

Romero glanced around at the crowd, took me gently by the upper arm, and hustled me into the bedroom. Our sudden entrance startled the cat, which ran under the bed.

His hand still on the door, as though holding it closed by force, Romero blew out a frustrated breath and fixed me with his skeptical cop gaze.

"What are you insinuating?"

"I just think it would be helpful to know for sure what we're dealing with."

"If he's not human, then..." he swore under his breath and rubbed the back of his neck. "What would he be? Please tell me we're not talking about...a demon?"

I flinched. In my world, people don't go around casually invoking the name of demons..

"Of course not," I said. The inspector visibly relaxed. Until I added: "I mean, I doubt it. Could be anything, really."

"Such as...?"

"A doppelganger, a changeling...or maybe just odd, like me."

Avoiding Romero's eyes, I started poking around the bedroom. It was a masculine room, full of polished antiques like the rest of the apartment. My interest was immediately caught by an ornate cherry armoire, its doors open to reveal a bonanza of silks and satins— ladies' gowns and gentlemen's suits from another era. The late eighteen-hundreds, I would say off-hand. The clothes were gorgeous, and incredibly rare in such good condition.

"What's all this?" I asked.

"I don't know, and I don't particularly care if it doesn't have to do with the vic's murder."

I reached into the closet, hugged several of the items to my chest, and concentrated.

Clothes were usually an easy read for me. They hummed, alive with the energy and whispered traces of the people they had adorned. But not these. These clothes were as soulless as the dead man on the table.

I recoiled, as disturbed as a normal person would have been to suddenly feel vibrations coming from their T-shirt and cargo pants.

"What's wrong?" Romero asked.

I just shook my head. I didn't know what to make of it all. "Could I...would it be possible for me to have these?"

Carlos gave me an incredulous look.

"We can't just help ourselves to stuff at a murder scene, Lily. They belong to this poor bastard's estate."

"Oh, of course," I said, feeling my cheeks burn. Some people say witches can't blush. Not true. I can't cry, and I can't sink in water. But I sure as heck blush when I've got cause. And I too often had cause.

"Okay, this guy was supposedly founder of something called the Serpentarian Society—thirteen members all had dinner here last night." Carlos said. "What can you tell me about that?"

"I don't know anything about a Society."

"Do you know what Serpentarian refers to? Serpents, like snakes?"

"Sort of. Serpentarius is the thirteenth sign of the zodiac."

"I thought there were twelve signs, one for each month."

"There used to be thirteen, because there were thirteen months in a year."

"No way."

"Way. Each with twenty-eight days, like February. The old English calendar was called 'thirteen and day'." At his still-dubious expression, I continued: "Think about it: thirteen times twenty-eight is three hundred and sixty-four."

Romero's mouth kicked up in a reluctant smile. "You do that equation in your head?"

"Not hardly," I returned his smile. "Math and I don't exactly get along. Anyway, I'm no expert but if I remember correctly, Serpentarius is the constellation in between Scorpio and Sagittarius."

"Okay...how is this Serpentarius guy significant to my homicide?"

"I have no idea. The only thing I remember about Serpentarius off-hand is that, unlike the other horoscope signs, he was based on a real man. A medical man. And his sign is a couple of intertwined snakes, hence the name. I'll find out more about him if you like, and let you know."

The little sparrow rose up from wherever it was hiding and started fluttering about the room. The cat took note. I crossed over to the window and pulled back the heavy velvet curtains. Behind them was a pair of sheers, and then a heavy-duty black-out shade. Finally I wrestled with a casement window that probably hadn't been opened since the Nixon administration.

When the window finally swung open, I jumped back, startled by a looming, grinning, grey face on the other side of the pane. I caught myself—it was merely the stony countenance of a gargoyle, protruding from overhanging eaves.

"Feeling a little jumpy?" asked Carlos.

"Fixin' to leap out of my skin," I agreed. "This is only my second homicide scene."

"You get used to it after a while...unfortunately."

I stepped away from the window, hoping the little bird would take note of the light and the air, and leave this unnatural place.

Instead it landed on my shoulder. The cat leapt onto the regal four-poster bed, its green-eyed gaze fixed on the sparrow, as though ready to pounce on its prey—and on me.

"Go on now, sugar," I turned my head and said to the bird. "Get on out of here."

The sparrow hopped twice, looked at me once more with one bright, shiny eye, then flew out the window to freedom. The cat bounded behind it, leaping up to the window ledge and looking out, yearning, after its quarry.

"Did you just talk to that bird?" Carlos asked, giving me a quizzical look.

"Yes."

"You talk to animals now?"

I smiled. "A lot of people talk to animals, but that doesn't mean they understand. Watch: Come on down from there, cat," I said to the feline preening on the window ledge.

The cat remained where it was.

"See, the cat didn't obey," I said.

"Cats never obey."

"True enough."

"The way the windows are covered up, maybe Zazi was afraid of the light. Like a... vampire."

"Don't be ridiculous," I scoffed. "There's no such thing as vampires."

"But changelings and ghosts and doppel-whatzits, no problem."

"It's not the same thing at all," I protested.

Still, I saw his point. How does one tease out superstition and folktales from reality? I knew from my training that all sorts of supposedly imaginary creatures are, in fact, real: Unicorns and pretty much all the woods folk, elves and brownies and faeries. But others were simply inventions of the creative human mind. Unfortunately, I had never finished my education in the Craft, so I was still unclear on a lot of the details.

Looked like I was going to have to check in with a higher authority: Aidan Rhodes, powerful male witch and unofficial Godfather to the west coast mystical contingent. Speaking of whom...

I glanced down at my vintage Tinkerbell watch. I was late for a lesson with Rhodes, who had agreed to help me complete my witchcraft training. I didn't trust him as far as I could throw him, but I surely did need him. Among other things, I imagined he might shed some light on the identity of the late Malachi Zazi, if not upon Zazi's murderer.

"I've got to get going. I'll ask around, see what I can find out," I said. "I'm sorry I wasn't more helpful. I can't feel anything— but that worries me. Normally I'd be feeling too much in a situation like this."

"Okaaaay," Carlos said in a cynical tone. He had asked me here himself, but he was still dealing with having invited my opinion on his homicide scene, just as I was still reeling at having been asked. It's not every day that a vintage clothing dealer gets called in to consult with the SFPD. To be fair, the police department had less interest in my expertise in antique Belgian lace than in my talents as a witch. But for that matter, it's not every day that a witch gets called in to advise on a murder case.

I had moved to San Francisco only a few months ago and opened my vintage clothing store in the former hippie haven of Haight Street, near Ashbury. Though I had hoped to keep my witchcraft under wraps, Fate had other plans for me, as she so often does. Already I had been involved in more supernatural mayhem than I would have imagined existed in such a welcoming, friendly city.

Carlos Romero stopped me as I headed for the door.

"You want this?"

He held the black cat out to me; the animal hung limp and boneless in Carlos' hands, gazing at me with huge yellowish-green headlamp eyes.

"I can't take it. I'm allergic," I said.

"I thought your type loved cats."

"Even among witches I'm a bit of a freak."

The cat stared at me and meowed. Sort of. It was more like a raspy little squeak than a proper meow.

"Don't you need a pet?" I said. "I think it likes you."

Carlos gave me a Look. "Listen, it's a black cat, and you're a witch. Allergic or not, you two go together like rice and beans. Why not take it home with you; it'll keep your pet pig company."

"I am not taking a cat."

"All right," he said with a sigh.

"What'll you do with it?" I couldn't help but ask.

"We'll call animal control. They'll take it to the pound."

"And the pound will find it a home?"

He shrugged. "They'll try, but they usually have too many cats as it is."

"Then..."

"They may have to euthanize it."

Our eyes held again. "You are an evil man, Inspector."

He smiled.

I took the dang cat.

© Juliet Blackwell


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